Journey to e-voting: Is INEC ‘Waiting for Godot’?

EMEKA NZE highlights the worry about the delay in the passage of the Electoral Act amendment bill as well as the benefits of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM).

The playwright, Samuel Beckett, in this play illustrates the theatre of the absurd, and the phrase ‘waiting for Godot‘ is used to describe a situation where people are waiting for something to happen, but it probably never will.

INEC’s commitment to Electoral Voting Machine (EVM)

Striped of all artificial impediments, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will achieve electronic voting come 2023.

At least, the commission, by its consistent pronouncement and actions on the subject, is committed, with some apostolic zeal, to this milestone, barring circumstances beyond its control. 

The commission has every reason to embark on this, bearing in mind  that all acts of electoral maleficence are usually, squally, blamed on INEC by the politicians and even the electorate.

Whether of act of violence or of ballot box snatching by hoodlums on evil mission, sponsored by politicians or of vote buying and selling, INEC gets the final knock.

While delivering a lecture on the INEC’s use of technology in electoral processes, at the Blueprint’s 10th anniversary last week, guest lecturer, the INEC chairman, Prof Mahmood Yakubu, through the commission’s IT Director Chidi Nwafor attested to this. 

“The commission has mandatorily ensured that right from the planning stage, valuable time and resources are spent to “sell” its technological plans to the political parties; yet, some politicians are the group of people who look for loopholes, or even create them, to make INEC processes look seemingly non-credible.

“Some politicians induce the populace to indulge in multiple registrations either by moving from one PU to another or by registering using special registration options meant for people who are physically challenged.

“They circumventing the use of Smart Card Readers (SCRs); there are efforts at frustrating its use, especially, on election day, political rivalry, tense elections during which  IT gadgets get smashed, etc.”

Security agencies are not left out in the blame. Nwafor said, “The recent activities of some security personnel during elections is worrisome, some security personnel tend to pander to political actors. In some instances, some security personnel have aided and abetted thugs, security of technical support staff and gadgets was threatened.” 

The guest speaker said, “the electronic results’ transmission and collation is the only solution!”

To this end, towards the end of last year till now, INEC under Prof Mahmood Yakubu, has been on a flight speed to put in place some of the technologies capable of discouraging or stemming the tide of compromised votes or voters during elections, the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) inclusive.

INEC therefore sees EVM as a panacea to all manner of rigging. The plan to commence the use of EVM, necessitates the need “to update the register of voters to include additional biometric features like facials, as this will strengthen the integrity of the register.”

EVM awareness 

In 2004, INEC embarked on studies and campaigns on the use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) for the conduct of Elections. However restrictions of the Electoral Law truncated the process;

He stated that currently, an Electronic Voting Implementation Committee (EVIC) is set up to consider the possibilities and modalities for the deployment of EVM for elections.

Late last year, INEC had a demonstration of EVM solutions by experienced industry players.

“The main aim of the demonstration was to enable the Commission learn from recent technologies in electronic voting which would guide in the decisions to be taken on the type of machine that suites our clime.

The demonstrations exposed the commission to various technological solutions and the different available options.

Benefits of e-voting 

According INEC, the following benefits can be reaped through the deployment of EVM.

Faster vote count and tabulation, thereby increasing transparency & building trust, more accurate results as human error is excluded, efficient handling of complicated electoral systems formulae that require laborious counting procedures and improved presentation of complicated ballot papers.

Others are increased convenience for voters, possibility of multilingual user, potentially increased participation and turnout, particularly with the use of Internet voting, more attuned to the needs of an increasingly mobile society, 
prevention of fraud in polling stations and during the transmission and tabulation of results by reducing human intervention and increased accessibility, eg audio ballot papers for blind voters, with internet voting for diaspora voting.

Yet there are other benefits such as reduction of spoilt ballot papers as voting systems can warn voters about any invalid votes and potential long-term cost savings through savings in poll worker time, cost of printing & distribution of ballot papers.

At the Blueprint’s lecture, INEC said, “The Commission hopes to commence the purchase of some EVMs to commence testing and piloting.”

While anxiously awaiting NASS to pass electoral act amendment bill, the commission has commenced and completed the expansion of access to polling units. 

Voter registration enrolment

By next week June 28, the voter registration will commence which offers opportunities to Nigerians who just turned to 18, those who missed the previous registration exercises, those wishing to transfer to other locations, as well as those who have mistakes on their present permanent voter cards (pvcs). For the registration, “the voter enrolment software will be a new software…” and this is part of the automation process to make data more accurate.

Delay in the passage of Electoral Act amendment bill

With the electoral act amendment bill began in 2018 still hanging at the National Assembly following the refusal by President Muhammadu Buhari to effect an assent before the 2019 elections, the tardiness of the current Senate itself to pass the pending bill, coupled with exigencies of arson and vandalism visited on some of its facilities, INEC’s hope of achieving e-voting in 2023 may be hanging in the balance. 

But Prof Yakubu was full of expectations when he assumed his second term in office. While reading out some of the tasks ahead, said: 

“The quick bill passage of the electoral act amendment is a top priority and you will recall that I appealed to the senate committee on INEC, during my screening for confirmation two weeks back, meaning the legislative processes for the passage of the electoral act amendment by the first quarter next year.

“The Senate president has assured the nation, only yesterday, at the public hearing of the electoral act, that the national assembly is committed to that target that it is actualised.”

For the records, electronic voting and application of sundry technologies in the electoral process lies in the passage of the amendment bill since the extant laws is silent on the use of technology in the electoral process. 

However, with the first quarter gone and second quarter of the year running, there are fears that the hope of the  amendment bill is in the balance. 

More barriers to EVM

At the Blueprints lecture, INEC’s IT director, Chidi Nwafor further listed other factors that have posed as barriers to the introduction of technology in the electoral process. 

“The introduction of technology to the electoral process has met with brick walls at some quarters – even staff fear losing their jobs and relevance.

“Technology is very capital intensive; for an organisation that executes key functions like an EMB, funding shouldn’t be an issue; some projects became unsustainable and had to be truncated due to lack of funds.

“Also affected are other salient processes that would better have been fully automated, but we have had to apply some manual interventions at some levels;

He categorically stated, “the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) project still depends on the availability of funds.”

Others according to Nwafor are  infrastructural deficit arising from 

“Poor national communications network coverage – voice over 2G edge is 80%, Data over 3G is 74.2% (a large % with a single network),

Security challenges to installed infrastructure, adding that “the Ministry of Communications & Digital Economy should consider this as a major project.

He further listed that Nigerians have personal trust issues, which has translated into lack of trust of agencies of government, calling for more transparency on the side of INEC.

Others are low literacy level. According to him, average adult literacy rate in English Language in Nigeria is 58% (2010 NBS report)

Major challenge to nationwide technology deployment – assisted voting to the rescue

He said despite the fact that INEC has keen at ensuring the security of its data, networks and other infrastructure, “several attempts have been made on INEC’s sites, portals, etc; and more will be made, especially, as INEC deploys more of its infrastructure online to serve the people better.”

He called for “more enforcement of the 2015 cyber-crimes (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) Act to safeguard areas technology cannot be applied in the electoralCommission process, especially those that are beyond the reach of the election management body such as political party primaries and selection of candidates, prevent disruptions to normal voting and results collation processes, security of men and materials, vote ‘buying” and ‘selling’, etc.”