The Sunday Mail
Dr Samuel Chindaro
The arrival of the first batch of Biometric Voter Registration kits is a landmark occasion and significant to the voter registration process in Zimbabwe.
It officially marks the shift to a technology-based voter registration system for the first time in Zimbabwe.
Credit should go to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and Government for embracing biometrics technology to enhance the registration and voting process.
Handled in the right way, this technology will go a long way towards eliminating one of the major causes of controversy that has accompanied previous elections.
To carry out a credible election, we have to start with credible voter registration.
Issues surrounding the state of the voters’ roll have been at the heart of most election disputes in Zimbabwe.
The main benefit that will be derived from the use of biometrics for voter registration will be the production of a new, clean voters’ roll, which contains unique individual information based on physical characteristics (facial image and fingerprints).
It is important to emphasise this point as there have been a lot of misconceptions regarding the use of biometrics in upcoming elections.
In the planned BVR process, a voter’s details (name date of birth, address, etc) will be digitally captured and stored alongside their biometric features (face and fingerprints).
This is very similar to the process we go through when we apply for national IDs and passports.
These will then be input into a single database where software will be used to clean up the voters’ roll by eliminating voters who would have registered multiple times.
This is because the software will not only compare names but will also match fingerprints. So a person who registers multiple times under different names will be picked out by the system.
The second part of the process, if it was to be implemented, would be biometrics-based voter verification or authentication on voting day.
This is whereby a person appears on voting day, presents an ID or provides a name.
The person’s biometrics face and/or fingerprints are then captured and compared to those in the database.
If there is a match, the person would be verified, gets a ballot paper and votes.
The person’s details are then digitally marked as having voted and cannot be used for repeat voting. This is not electronic or biometric voting, but manual voting as we are used to.
However, it is important to emphasise that Zec has clearly indicated that biometrics are going to be used for voter registration only.
It is, therefore, important to recognise that biometrics are not going to be used on polling day and identification documents will remain critical for identifying voters.
On polling day, voters will still be required to present identification documents which will then be cross-checked manually with information in the system before one is allowed to vote.
Therefore, the current exercise by the Registrar-General’s Office of issuing IDs should be viewed and judged in this perspective.
The availability of BVR kits means registration can now start.
However, there are a number of issues that Zec should diligently look into to ensure this process is a success.
It is essential that Zec ensures staff who are going to be handling these kits are adequately trained.
It is unfortunate that the training of the “BVR Master Trainers and Technicians” could not be started earlier; the five days allocated for the training may be inadequate.
Technology is only as good as the way it is deployed. To identify multiple registration, which is the main benefit of the system, clean data must be submitted.
Fingerprints and photographs must be clearly captured in the right way, which requires trained and capable staff.
Essential skills for staff operating BVR kits include basic computer skills, with an emphasis on data capturing, processing and administration; on top of planning and logistical skills.
Staff should also be trained to repair and maintain the equipment, so that they do not rely solely on the supplier for maintenance and support issues.
Timelines are tight and preparedness of registration teams is crucial to success.
Since election technology has the potential to directly affect political processes, it is important to engender a sense of ownership in users.
To achieve this, Zec should provide sufficient information to the public to enable them to feel included in the process.
In addition, accessibility, versatility and equality considerations have to be taken into account when deploying these kits to ensure people with special needs (the old, and disabled for example) are included.
Challenges that may occur during data capture include unreadable prints of injured people and software bugs.
Contingency measures should be in place to ensure that no one is disenfranchised.
There are a number of technical issues associated with the use of BVR which Zec must be aware of and mitigate against.
The use of technology has associated data security risks which occur as data is transmitted between registration centres and the central registry.
Safeguards should be in place to prevent corruption or manipulation of data.
Corrupted data may result in “false rejection” of valid voters. It is, therefore, important that data security gaps are eliminated from this process.
Zec has to put measures in place for biometric data to be securely transmitted and/or transported.
There must be mitigating control measures to protect the mobile registration kits and data storage devices from theft, manipulation or destruction during storage and transportation from registration centres.
Zec must also clarify the issue of the Data Centre (Central Server) which will host the AFIS software (de-duplication software), the centralised biometric data and related systems.
There have been conflicting reports emerging from Zec which ranged from a separate tender process for the central system, provision from existing facilities and recently UN sponsored upgrading of an existing system.
Such conflicting statements are unhelpful. It should be noted that the Central Server will only be required once all the data from the various registration centres has been gathered. So Zec has time to resolve this issue.
Once the Central Server is in place, adequate security measures must be there, with defined data access privileges (who has permission to access and make amendments to the database?), recovery and back-up procedures.
The processes to identify any security breaches and audits to track any changes to the database to the satisfaction of all stakeholders should be outlined.
These security issues are crucial and must be addressed in a transparent manner to avoid post-registration or post-election disputes.
The challenges to Zec are not restricted to technology and procurement.
Advanced technology alone cannot guarantee the integrity of elections without corresponding legal and administrative mechanisms.
It is therefore important for Zec to ensure that the legal framework is compatible with the introduction and use of BVR technology.
With all due respect to the legal expertise of Zec chairperson Justice Rita Makarau, the recent Kenyan election highlights that failure to adhere to legal requirements can result in challenges.
Associated with acquisition of biometric data is the issue of data protection and the right to privacy.
While there is a need for electoral data to be in the public domain, the balance between the reasonable demands for transparency in electoral processes and the right to privacy is delicate and requires careful handling.
In spite of all the challenges, the introduction of biometrics in the compilation of voter registers should improve the accuracy of the voter registers and provide the foundation for clean, violence-free, fair and credible elections.
The biggest benefit of BVR as has already been stated, is the production of a clean, credible and reliable voters’ register which is at the heart of conducting a fair and credible election.
The integrity of the voters’ roll is one of the basic principles on which the legitimacy of an election is founded; and BVR implemented in the right way is a giant step forward.
◆ Dr Samuel Chindaro is an electronics engineer, biometrics expert and researcher, trained at the National University of Science and Technology (Zimbabwe), the universities of Birmingham and Kent (UK). At Kent, he was the leader of a specialist research group on biometrics technology. Feedback: [email protected]