September 22, 2021

Why technology trumps options for 2023 elections

There is a growing call on the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to adopt modern technology during the 2023 general election, regardless of the ill-informed decision by the National Assembly to reject electronic transmission of election results. Public support for use of technology in the elections is a proactive move to strengthen the foundations of democracy in Nigeria.

The case for use of electronic transmission of results is unassailable. It encourages openness, fairness and offers every political party and candidate a level playing field. The success or failure of the 2023 elections rests with how INEC chooses to proceed, the frameworks for the conduct of the elections and the mechanisms put in place to ensure that the elections are held in an open, free, just, encouraging and empowering environment.

If INEC aims to make the elections uncomplicated and trouble-free, it must see technology as the best tool available. Manual voting and manual transmission of election results are anachronistic and unreliable. They encourage widespread transgressions of election rules and procedures. They are riddled with post-election disputes, controversies, litigations, and they generate public outrage and general dissatisfaction with election outcomes. Manual processes of voting and communicating results are not safe and are not trusted by voters.   

In the 21st Century, INEC has no valid reasons to continue to encourage and embrace outdated manual voting and manual transmission of election results. The electoral umpire must adopt election practices that are credible, dependable and appeal to a majority of citizens. INEC must implement election procedures that respond to the challenges of our time, the peculiarities of our culture and, more significantly, the voting system and procedure for transmission of results must reflect the realities of the current age.

Manual voting and communication of election results must be abandoned because they tend to encourage cheating. They play right into the hands of dubious politicians and political parties that do not want to uphold fair rules or see free, credible and visibly hassle-free elections. There are too many abuses inherent in manual voting and transmission of election results.

In 2007, INEC, under the leadership of Professor Maurice Iwu, announced it had approved the use of electronic voting machines for that year’s general election. The announcement was greeted by opponents and advocates of the new idea. The pessimists in particular argued, rather single-mindedly, that the solution to electoral malpractices in Nigeria resided not with substituting human beings with technology but with changing the ethical orientation and social values of voters. Iwu contended at the time that the use of electronic voting machines would produce fewer post-election acrimony and complaints. I agree with that view.

Iwu drew out a road map for the introduction and adoption of electronic voting machines in the 2007 elections. That road map addressed four key areas, namely: the electronic voters’ register; method of identifying voters; the balloting system; and electronic transmission of election results. The current debate seems to focus on electronic transmission of results. It shouldn’t be. If the loopholes in these four areas of technology-driven election processes are addressed, Nigeria would have gone a long way in reducing the number of complaints that trail every election.

My position has always been that, if technologies were available, accessible, and affordable, they should be deployed during elections to make life easier for voters, and to make post-election experience less litigious. The value of technology to our private and public life cannot be under-estimated.

Some people have argued that technology would not eliminate misconduct in elections in Nigeria. However, while it is true that technology is manufactured by human beings and while it is also true that technology is susceptible to manipulation by corrupt, light-fingered election officials and political party agents, there is no doubt that technology will diminish illegal and unethical practices that undermine the integrity of every election.

Past elections in Nigeria were marred by unprecedented malpractices that had everything to do with the manual system of voting and the physical, labour-intensive method adopted in transmitting the results. This is why the current INEC chairperson, Mahmood Yakubu, should reflect seriously and carefully on the significance of technology in the 2023 elections.

There are numerous ways that technology can strengthen the conduct of free, fair, credible and open elections in Nigeria. Technology will disrupt and expose the evil practices of election officials and party representatives. Technology will not permit the audacious action of election officials who deliberately manipulate votes cast during election through stuffing of ballot boxes with illegally thump-printed ballot papers. Technology will reduce, eliminate or discourage buying of voters’ cards by politicians who are keen to jack up the number of votes they would receive during an election. 

Technology will not allow election officials to alter results announced at each collation centre before they are conveyed to INEC head office in Abuja. This is critical. Manual transmission of results provides a space for fraudulent election officials and political party representatives to produce fake results that are at odds with the actual votes cast in each polling booth. Technology will invalidate all that nonsense.

Finally, technology will ensure that only duly registered voters can cast ballots during election. While these points might appear pedantic to politicians who abhor the rule of law and are unwilling to observe election rules, support for use of technology is driven by genuine desire and concerns to fix, once and for all, common problems seen during elections in Nigeria.

Yakubu has sufficient time to conduct a pilot study that would enable INEC to evaluate and adopt the most effective options available for the 2023 general election. Prior research on the impact of technology on the election process must be accorded urgency. INEC has the human, financial, and technological resources to undertake the research.

Nevertheless, we must not be deluded by technology. If Yakubu opts to adopt technology during elections, that decision would most certainly be tested by dishonest politicians, their representatives and criminally-minded INEC officials. If INEC decides to use technology, that technology must be user-friendly such that both literate and illiterate voters could use it with minimum difficulties. The technology must withstand tamper and should not be easy for fakers to produce replicas.

Given the literacy rate in Nigeria, INEC must undertake massive information campaigns before the elections. The campaigns should aim to create awareness and educate voters on how to use the technology. INEC must not assume that all Nigerians are tech-savvy. Regardless of the nature of the technology, some voters are likely to find the technology daunting.

Public education is one sure way to reduce uncertainties and sensitize the public. However, this is not to suggest that there are no problems associated with public information campaigns. In fact, as far back as 1947, communication and public opinion scholars Herbert Hyman and Paul Sheatsley offered insights into why information campaigns fail.

In the introduction to their journal article, titled, “Some reasons why information campaigns fail,” Hyman and Sheatsley wrote: “To assume a perfect correspondence between the nature and amount of material presented in an information campaign and its absorption by the public, is to take a naïve view, for the very nature and degree of public exposure to the material is determined to a large extent by certain psychological characteristics of the people themselves.”

I have nothing else to add.

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