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National Assembly: Electronic Voting To The Rescue

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With the assurances provided by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Nigerians are clamouring for the introduction of electronic transmission of election results and by extension, electronic voting in the next general elections. But, the only thing that may thwart the deployment of technology is the absence of an enabling law. Members of the National Assembly, particularly the Senate, are not too optimistic that deploying technology that is yet to be tested on a large scale would be in the interest of the country. Yesterday, the parliament finally approved e-voting. Correspondent SANNI ONOGU reports

To many observers, politicians, civil society activists and members of academia, Nigeria’s readiness to adopt electronic voting for the conduct of the 2023 general elections is not in doubt. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has also avowed its readiness to introduce e-voting in 2023 and future elections subject to enabling legislation being emplaced.

However, efforts to amend the Electoral Act 2010 to provide for e-voting have failed to yield desired results since 2015. However, yesterday, the parliament gave it nod. While the amendment done by the Dr. Abubakar Bukola Saraki-led Eight National Assembly suffered stillbirth due to President Muhammadu Buhari’s refusal of assent, analysts fear that the ongoing efforts to realign the Electoral Act by making categorical provision for e-voting may suffer a similar fate going by the aversion to electronic transmission of results already displayed by the Ninth Senate.

Clamour for e-voting:

With the assurance by INEC that it has worked out the modalities for further deployment of technology in future elections, provided the enabling law is put in place by the National Assembly, Nigerians are clamouring for the introduction of electronic transmission of election results and by extension e-voting. But, the lawmakers, particularly those in the upper legislative chamber, believe that deploying a technology that is yet to be tested on a large scale during the next general elections may not be in the interest of the country.

To some of them, electronic voting, as distinct from the electronic transmission of results, is an utopia or a dreamland – desirable but never attainable, especially in a country like Nigeria. Notwithstanding, the agitation for the adoption of e-voting in Nigeria has continued to soar. This stems largely from the nation’s unenviable record of an electoral heist.

The fraud, violence and prolonged post-election litigations that often characterise electoral contests in the country are often cited as ills that would easily fade away if e-voting becomes the modus operandi for the conduct of elections in the country. Added to this is the inherent ability of the technology to save time, reduce cost, intentional manipulation, rigging, eliminate human error, ballot box snatching, hijack of election materials, unbridled violence during elections and engender trust and credibility in the electoral process.

However, e-voting is not without its downsides. Electronic systems can be compromised by hackers, thereby making nonsense of the technology and reversing intended gains.

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Is Nigeria ripe for it?

INEC says yes. Its chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu said the agency’s only hindrance to the deployment of electronic voting is the lack of an enabling law. INEC National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye said a team of in-house engineers were currently evaluating proposals submitted by 49 companies, both local and foreign, for the supply of e-voting machines. Prof Yakubu had also in his remarks at the 2021 budget defence before the House of Representatives Committee on Electoral Matters last year indicated that the commission would deploy electronic voting machines “very soon,” possibly beginning with the Anambra governorship poll scheduled to hold next month.

However, the commission has been seeking an amendment of the legal framework that would enable electronic voting. This, it remains committed to introducing electronic voting machines in the electoral process to replace the manual system that had put the commission under heavy logistics burden, including the printing of electoral papers and hiring of thousands of ad hoc staff, among others.

Opinions divided:

Although opinions on whether Nigeria is ripe for electronic voting or not remain divergent, Yakubu had said at the inauguration of the 1999 Constitution Review Committee of the House of Representatives in October 2020 that elections in the country were “too manual, expensive, cumbersome and archaic… the encumbrance of the deployment of full technology in elections should be removed”.

As debate soars over the workability of e-voting and transmission of results rages, former President Goodluck Jonathan has joined the ranks of those insisting that electronic voting is the way to go.

He canvassed for the immediate adoption of the system to curb the ugly trend of politicians using thuggery and cultism to win elections in the country. Jonathan who spoke during the Third Synod of the Diocese of Ogbia at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Otakeme, Bayelsa State, recently said over 50 per cent of the problems faced by the country, including insurgency, cultism and corruption, would be addressed with the adoption and effective use of e-voting.

He blamed the rising insecurity in the country on activities of politicians who were hell-bent on grabbing political power through the backdoor, against the popular wish of the people.

The former president said: “Our political activities, particularly the use of young people as militiamen and thugs and so on, to win elections has increased the security challenges facing our nation.

“Some of the youths they use are so protected that even the police cannot arrest them because they are ‘boys’ to powerful politicians who use them during elections.

“That is why I have always advocated that for us to move forward as a country, we must use electronic voting where nobody will use thugs to win elections. Immediately we use electronic voting, the issue of thuggery and cultism will drop by at least 50 per cent.”

Age of technology:

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The Executive Director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwal Musa Rafsanjani told The Nation that electronic voting should be adopted for the 2023 general elections. Rafsanjani who is also the chairman of the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), a civil society organisation committed to free and fair elections strongly believes electronic voting should be used for the upcoming 2023 elections.

He said: “We are in the age of technology and almost everyone is embracing it for business transactions. Politicians are embracing technology and social media for their campaigns, so why don’t they want the same technology for elections? This same technology has been used commendably for local government elections in Kaduna State. It is no magic wand, but the pros far outweigh the cons. We have also seen other countries adopt electronic voting, so why are we scared? If we adopt electronic voting, and especially the electronic transmission of results, we will significantly minimise, if not completely remove, errors and issues during the collation of results.

Benefits surpass challenges:

“This will also eradicate unnecessary delays in the declaration of results due to manual computation and improve the efficiency of the process. It will also prevent fraudulent manipulation of results by powerful and influential actors in our political space. Nigeria as a nation will also be in tune with current developments which are geared towards a greater deployment of technology in conducting business and governance in the 21st Century.

“One other fundamental issue that will be resolved is the bloodshed experienced during elections where we have citizens and security officials being attacked and killed during the coalition process. If it (election result) is electronically transmitted, there won’t be a need to have security personnel escort results from polling unit to ward levels and the local levels before state and national, and this will also ensure greater transparency of our electoral process.”

Dr. Anthony Ogande of the Department of Mass Communication, Nasarawa State University, also believes that the time for electronic voting in Nigeria is now. He argued that since the world is becoming increasingly digitalised, Nigeria has no other option than to adopt e-voting in 2023. He said: “Yes there has been an argument that: ‘The most advanced democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe have difficulty in shielding their electoral systems from cyber-attacks and Nigeria being substantially deficient in ICT, has no capacity and or capability to manage frauds associated with electronic voting.’

“Plausible as this argument, yet these same advanced democracies have not resorted back to manual conduct of elections. It simply means that the benefits far outweigh the losses, so it is worth a try.

“However, some of the challenges to encounter in e-voting in Nigeria are inadequate internet coverage, especially in rural communities, epileptic electricity supply, activities of internet hackers, insecurity of e-voting gadgets at polling units, inadequate sensitization and adoption by the electorate and the lack of political will power by the government.

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For example, if the government is sincere, President Buhari should have passed the Electoral Act Amendment bill long ago.

Challenges:

“These and other challenges threaten the effective deployment of e-voting in the upcoming 2023 general election in Nigeria. The globe has gone digitized; Nigeria has no choice bu,t to begin with e-voting in 2023 general elections as her litmus test to catch up with the rest of the world, however, meekly.”

The National Secretary General, Campaign for Democracy (CD), Pastor Ifeanyi Odili said the use of e-voting for the 2023 general election is feasibl, if politicians will allow it. Odili said: “Electronic voting is a welcome development. It is good for so many reasons, and because of its many advantages, those politicians who cannot make it in a free and fair election contest would not allow it.

“To answer your question, what are the benefits of electronic voting? This voting technology has the intention to speed up ballots, reduce the cost of paying staff to count votes manually and can provide improved accessibility for disabled voters. Also in the long term, expenses are expected to decrease. Results can be reported and published faster.

“Now, if you behold all these benefits, our political leaders, business class and the so called bureaucrats, I mean the civil servants who are deeply enmeshed in corruption and electoral fraud, who want to fraudulently benefit  more from manual voting would not allow the INEC to succeed in this proposal. Taking a look at the expenses that are expected to decrease, the corrupt elements would cry foul, they would do everything human possible to thwart the proposal.

“I also mentioned that election results can be reported and published faster with electronic voting. I ask therefore, which of these politicians who obviously cannot win elections in their communities in a clean and clear contest would want election results to be reported or published earlier than their expectations? The answer is none! What I am only saying is that it is a welcome development. It is feasible. I mean INEC has come out with good election proposals, but the evil ones at the corridors of power, I mean the politicians in collaboration with their allies at the National Assembly and the civil service would not allow this good proposal to see the light of the day.

“Times without numbers, I have said that, our problem as a nation is not the institution. It is a problem of man’s inhumanity to man. It is a problem of corruption which has eaten so deep in our body politic. It is an artificial problem created by artificial people. These are problems that do not need much prayer to solve. We need to solve it ourselves by going to the streets.”

Lack of political will:

The publisher, Daybreak newspaper and lecturer, International Institute of Journalism (IIJ), Abuja, Dr. Austin Maho, believes credible elections is a means of recruiting leadership. Dr Maho said there is no doubt that transmission of election results remains the weakest link in the nation’s electoral process. He said despite the independence granted to INEC by the constitution, lawmakers in the Ninth National Assembly are attempting to subordinate the agency to its whims and caprices for selfish gains in their ongoing amendments to the Electoral Act 2010.

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Maho  said: “Since the dawn of the present democratic process in 1999, there have been attempts by successive leaders of our electoral body, INEC, to give Nigerians credible elections. Leadership recruitment process is critical to the democratic process. There would be no democracy in the real sense if votes don’t count and if leadership does not reflect the wishes of the electorate. The Card Reader was a major innovation introduced by Professor Attahiru Jega as INEC chairman.

“With the introduction of this innovative technology, electoral transparency improved a great deal leading to the defeat of an incumbent under whose watch the technology was deployed. A lot of people believe that the introduction of the card reader helped in no small way in bringing about the APC, Muhammadu Buhari-led administration in 2015. Buhari, a major beneficiary of the introduction of technology into our electoral process, was expected to take the step a notch further by expressly giving his support to electronic transmission of results which should be the natural follow up to the use of the card reader. This was not to be.

“In any case, the electoral body has never said expressly that they cannot transmit results electronically. It is the politicians who are singing this song against the wishes of Nigerians to have electronic voting and transmission of results. The politicians have even gone further in tying the hands of the electoral body by introducing the ridiculous clause that demands that INEC should get the approval and clearance of the NCC and the National Assembly before it can determine that the network is adequate for electronic transmission of election result. They forget that INEC is an independent body that cannot be an appendage of the NCC or the National Assembly.

Not rocket science:

“Besides, Section 52 of the Electoral Act grants the commission the power to deploy relevant technology it may require to carry out its function. INEC can, in effect, rely on this provision to transmit results electronically. The benefits of electronic transmission of election results were demonstrated in the Edo governorship election last year. And for those who kick against electronic transmission of result, Kaduna State has since 2018 demonstrated that the system is not rocket science or one that would disenfranchise rural or uneducated people.

“In the recent local government elections in the state, the system was again deployed in all nooks and crannies of the state. Although there were hitches in some places, it had no overall effect on the outcome of the election. The system has shown to be easy to use as reports said it took about a minute to complete voting in a free and fair manner. It is only those who fear the outcome of a free and fair electoral process that would stand against electronic transmission of results. If we are serious as a nation in correcting the flaws in our leadership recruitment process, electronic transmission of results is the way to go.”

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However, the Executive Director, Adopt a Goal for Development Initiative, Ariyo Dare Atoye said deploying electronic voting on a wide scale during the 2023 general election would be disastrous. He argued that such a move would be against the globally accepted principle that an untested technology should not be deployed on a large scale.

Atoye said: “It is not a case of being ripe or not. We may even have the infrastructure. But electronic voting is more demanding, tasking and sometimes complicated. Election process should be incremental. It should be incremental in terms of getting technology into our elections. If we can succeed generally in terms of electronic transmission of results, we can decide to experiment with electronic voting.

“I said that we may have the infrastructure but it is incremental in the sense that we must first test electronic voting in smaller elections by INEC. Elections such as the off season election like bye-elections into the Senate and House of Representatives and even some governorship bye-elections that are off cycle elections.

Success of card reader:

“Now, it is when we have successfully tested this technology that we can now say that the same can be introduced in 2023. Bearing in mind that the electronic transmission of results that we are talking about has been tested in previous elections and would be tested in Anambra, Ekiti and Osun before 2023. Also, not forgetting that when we used or tested the Card Reader in the 2015 general election, it was a flop. The card reader was a flop because it was not tested in any smaller election before it was deployed in 2015.

“It is a universal principle that you do not deploy technology on a large scale without it being tested on a smaller scale. So, that is the whole essence of the issue of electronic voting. Electronic voting is desirable because it is quicker, faster and accurate. When there are no glitches or manipulations it is the best but one thing we have seen globally, is that people prefer use of ballot papers for elections because if electronic voting is manipulated, the consequence is that it will be difficult sometimes to be able to retrieve specific data.

“But, why the ballot paper has a big advantage over electronic voting is that if there is an error in the result, ballot papers can be recounted. But in terms of electronic voting, if it is manipulated or altered, sometimes it could be very difficult to amend. There are different kinds of electronic voting machines that have been adopted in the world. None of them has been 100 per cent or even 90 per cent foolproof.

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“In America, they are still battling with the issue of electronic voting and some people are saying they should not even introduce it in some counties. Some counties in America have rejected electronic voting. As we speak, they want their paper trail. But the consensus globally is that results, after being collated, should be transmitted in a very simple, smart and quick way which only electronic transmission of results can guarantee. So that is the difference here.

Good, but…:

“Globally, more countries, including those in the developed world, are doing more paper voting than even electronic voting. Electronic voting is good for smaller elections like organizational elections, parliamentary elections, etc. But when it comes to general elections, many countries favour the paper ballot over electronic voting.”

When reminded that the Kaduna State Government, under the Governor Nasir el-Rufai administration has used electronic voting to conduct local governments’ elections twice, Atoye said that the Kaduna State local government elections where e-voting was deployed were not subjected to independent verification and validation and thus, cannot be used as a yardstick to determine the feasibility of e-voting in the 2023 general elections.

He said: “I have not been able to scrutinise the Kaduna use of electronic voting. People have criticised it and people have alleged a lot of manipulations. One thing that has been very questionable about the Kaduna voting is that it has not been opened up to civil society evaluation and monitoring for them to be able to assess. For instance, one aspect of the electronic voting system in Kaduna or the processes that have been adopted that is bad is that there is what we call ‘verification of sensitive and non-sensitive materials’.

“The ballot machine is a sensitive material. The opposition parties are not allowed access to monitor, to look at those things to know if they have been compromised. Some people have alleged that some of them have been preloaded. But I don’t want to totally criticise what the Kaduna State Government has done in terms of electronic voting. I believe that it is not a bad place to start, as long as it could subsequently guarantee transparency and accountability in our electoral process.”

NASS, the last hurdle:

In summary, if the optimism of the various respondents captured in this writeup is anything to go by, one can say that electronic voting is both feasible and practicable with humongous advantages if applied in the 2023 general elections. However, its application is wholly dependent on the National Assembly, including a clause in the Electoral Act (amendment) Bill, specifically empowering INEC to conduct elections with e-voting technology and the president’s assent to make the bill a law applicable in Nigeria.

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