Mobile voting: Lost opportunity

BY PETER WANYONYI Kenya goes to the ballot box in a couple of months. Come election time, two things are guaranteed – one, that there will be long queues of voters snaking out of polling stations and on for hundreds of metres at every polling station save for the country’s sparsely populated north. Two, and more important, there will be massive disagreements come results announcement time. Not a single losing candidate around the country will accept the verdict of the returning officer. The reasons will be varied, but they will revolve around one fact: no one, not even the Electoral Commission, knows exactly how many voters there are in the electoral roll. Because of this, no one really knows just how many voters there are in any constituency or county. We actually cannot tell with any level of confidence who voted and who didn’t: in the 21st century, we still rely on “indelible” ink to tell who has voted. Of course it’s not indelible – enterprising vote thieves have discovered that dipping one’s inked finger into one or other soft drink or bleach washes away the ink pretty much instantly. And so, after the elections, the inevitable petitions will be launched in court. The taxpayer will be saddled with the bill: billions of shillings will be spent investigating vote tallies, confirming voter registers, verifying already-cast votes, and recounting valid ones. As always happens, the new tallies will differ significantly from the original counts announced by election presiding officers. It would be comical if it wasn’t so deadly: in every Kenyan election with a sitting president contesting, the country always experiences armed clashes. Hundreds or even thousands die – because we cannot count and keep an honest tally. This is bizarre, because Kenya is a leader in a peculiarly developing-world facet of technology: mobile commerce. No one comes close to our amazing plethora of applications developed to extend mobile usage in just about every aspect of commercial life in the country. We bank and transfer money using mobile phones, invest in government bonds using mobiles phones, access healthcare in m-afya kiosks across the country using mobile phones, market and sell agricultural produce using mobile apps, find dating partners using mobile dating apps… the applications are endless. There’s literally no service or activity in Kenya that doesn’t have a mobile app that connects people offering the service and those buying it – except for one: voting. The electoral landscape of Kenya is set up very strangely. First, every adult of voting age must have a national identity card. This is not optional, and it is impossible for an adult to access any service in the country – from entering a commercial building to getting admitted to hospital – without the ubiquitous national ID card. This places us far ahead of many other countries, most of them much wealthier, because we have a ready database of citizens. The ID card lists your names, a unique ID card number, and your “home” area. Ironically, however, you cannot use your ID card alone to vote. For this, you need another piece of plastic – a voter’s card. On the voter’s card are listed…your names, your ID card number, and the region in which you registered to vote. Effectively, therefore, the voter’s card is merely a subset of the national ID card. So why do we need to “register” citizens to vote, when those citizens already have national ID cards? No one really knows. The strange tales continue when one peruses the electoral register. What should be a straightforward database listing names and ID card numbers of citizens has over time become a messy, complicated list of both dead and living people that is used to steal elections by using dead people’s IDs to vote. And yes, a dead adult Kenyan cannot be buried without a government burial permit that also notes the deceased’s national ID number, among other details. What is so exceptionally difficult about consolidating the voting documents into the national ID card? Nothing. However, requiring citizens to register specifically for voting ensures that some otherwise eligible voters can be denied that right on one basis or the other, but usually boiling down to those voters belonging to the wrong tribe. To acquire a mobile sim card, one must show their national ID card at the purchasing point. This is then registered using a process that is simple and so effective that mobile scammers and those who abuse mobile internet to libel others are regularly identified, arrested, charged and imprisoned. So then – since mobiles are tied to ID card numbers, and we thus know who owns which mobile number, and we can easily track any mobile electronic data back to its originating mobile phone and thus to the owner of the phone, and given that our mobile security protocols are good enough for half the economy to be entrusted to mobile money…why don’t we simply use mobile phones to vote? Developing apps to facilitate mobile voting is trivial. There would be no more “lost” votes, no more fighting over tallies because everything is tallied electronically, and everyone can even check to ensure their vote wasn’t changed or lost or not tallied. So why aren’t we using mobile voting? Probably because that would be way too accountable, too clean an election.

The author is an information systems professional based in New Zealand.

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