Technology can trump poll disputes

Patrick Tendayi Huni
In March 2015, I was interviewed for one of two vacancies for Commissioner at the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission by Parliament’s Standing Rules and Orders Committee.

It was co-chaired by Nelson Chamisa and Edna Madzongwe, and also comprised MPs from across the political divide.

Commissioners Qubani Moyo and Emmanuel Magade were subsequently appointed in June 2015.

In May 2016, I unsuccessfully tried again to land one of six posts for Zec Commissioner.

In July 2016, the following were appointed: Ngoni Kundidzora, Netsai Mushonga and Faith Sebata; while Joyce Kazembe, Daniel Chigaru and Sibongile Ndlovu were re-appointed.

We will have most of these commissioners until 2022, with a number of them eligible for re-appointment.

I take nothing from these commissioners — all distinguished in their respective fields.

However, I notice that what I was desperate to bring to this illustrious group — ICT electoral experience — remains outstanding, particularly for a 21st century elections management body.

Put simply, the holes that keep being punched into the electoral processes can be mended through adopting relevant technologies.

All that is needed is political will.

It is disturbing that Zimbabwe’s election can hang in the balance, not because the conduct of the poll is in doubt, as many observers agree that things largely went smoothly, but because of procedural issues related to tabulating votes.

Now just about every citizen knows of a document called the V11 form, whose contents, custody, tallying and authenticity are at the centre of a poll outcome challenge.

In my experience in the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa, a similar form is used as basic source of voting outcome per polling station.

The IEC, however, deploys technology from the time it is signed by party representatives.

At the lowest level possible, depending on how technologically accessible the area is (ward, constituency, district IEC office), the polling station V11 forms are captured and physically scanned into the Election Results Management System.

Consequently, a “physical copy” of the V11 equivalent is immediately in the results system.

IEC data supervisors check the scans and entries to ensure correct capture at the command centres, provincially or nationally.

When satisfied, they flag a result for a polling station as “final” and immediately update the tally for a political party in the respective ward or constituency.

In the provincial and national command centres, each political party is allocated dedicated working stations with PCs and printers.

They are able to see aggregated results per ward, constituency and province tiered in such a way that they can drill down each result to the component polling stations.

Consequently, we never had tally disputes. We indeed had queries, but party representatives would satisfy themselves by simply using the IEC Results Management System interface.

I always say elections are a game.

Like soccer, there are players, a referee, managers and supporters. Each of these has a stake in the outcome.

The winning players need to be able to savour their victory.

The losers players need to know where and how they lost and prepare to fight another day.

The winning supporters need to celebrate and enjoy programmes promised in manifestos.

Managers need to know how much investment is needed to prepare for the coming election.

The referee must therefore do his or her job well, with the assistance of a video assistant referee if need be.

Just too much is at stake.

I, therefore, encourage all political players, the elections management body and the international community to make an undertaking of investing heavily in an appropriate Election Results System, complete with national servers on wide area network connectivity to district, ward and even polling station level.

There is need to invest in both hardware and Internet connectivity. Parliament must pass the necessary budget for this; the international donor community can assist.

While democracy costs money, its failure costs more.

Such connectivity would also be necessary to enable ZEC to employ proper biometrics to confirm and tick off everyone who would have voted.

Having invested so much in biometric voter registration, it is important to advance the system holistically from a technological point of view.

Technology is our only hope for indisputable poll outcomes. Zimbabweans do not deserve continued poll disputes.

The winning party does not benefit from a dispute. Nor does the losing party.

It is possible to have a dispute-free election in 2023. But we have to start now. These systems take time to build and perfect.

 

Patrick Tendayi Huni is the founder and director of National Agenda on Elections & Governance Zimbabwe Trust. Feedback: [email protected] and www.naegz.org

 

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