Zimbabwe News and Internet Radio

Politics of biometric voter registration system

By Cyril Zenda

When the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced that the country was going to adopt Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) system for use in the 2018 harmonised elections most of those that have known the Government of Zimbabwe found this overture to be too good to be true.
Rita Makarau
Rita Makarau

Coming as it did — a good 30 months ahead of the elections — after minimum lobbying by civic society organisation (CSOs), many became suspicious about this concession that was being readily granted by a government that was intransigently resisting effecting a raft of electoral reforms that opposition parties have been demanding.

At the time, some members of these CSOs had told the Financial Gazette that the readiness with which government was willing to let go the “golden” Tobaiwa Mudede-compiled voters’ roll showed that either the ruling party strategists had identified horse and cart loopholes that could be exploited to ZANU-PF’s electoral advantage or it was just a strategy to buy time so that it could plead poverty and shortage of time on the eleventh hour when the only option left would be to revert to the tested old voters’ roll.
When the process to acquire the BVR kits was kick-started with the financial backing from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), after the government had — as expected — pleaded poverty as regards empowering ZEC to acquire the kits, all of a sudden the same government announced that it was taking over the finalisation of the tendering process and was going to fund the purchase of the kits.
Knowing government’s precarious financial position, this development further raised eyebrows in many circles.
Before long, the real intention of government started to emerge.
As one African proverb says: When a leopard wants to devour its own cubs, it starts by accusing them of smelling like goats.
Suddenly the State-controlled media started a well-orchestrated campaign to discredit the BVR process, which is now the in-thing on the African continent and beyond.
The media reports that quoted a number of “experts” and developments elsewhere, sought to cast aspersions on the reliability the BVR system. Describing them as “a luxury we cannot afford”, the media tried to portray the BVR system as being susceptible to “cyber-attacks” and “hacking”, which reportedly could lead to the derailment of the voting process and disenfranchisement of voters.
Conveniently conflating biometric voter registration and electronic voting (which ZEC has ruled out in the near future), government press gave the abandonment of electronic voting in France as an example of how dangerous the BVR system is.
However, both the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) and the Electoral Resource Centre (ERC) have since last year made it clear that the security fears were being caused by misconceptions on the interpretation of the difference between BVR and electronic voting.
In a statement to countervail the misinformation from the State media campaign against BVR, ZESN explained that a biometric voter register would capture physical and biological characteristics of voters for physical identification at polling station, where after verification, the voter would still be required to vote manually as before.
“On election day, voters will still be required to present their identification documents and be issued with a paper ballot paper and not vote electronically. Hence, it is important to note that there will be no technology failure on election day as ZEC will issue printed copies of the voters’ roll at polling stations,” ZESN said in the statement.
Samuel Chindaro, a biometric expert who has specialised in biometrics technology at Kent University in the United Kingdom, said the fears raised by the State media were simply based on myths.
“What these publications revealed was a clear lack of understanding of the BVR process. This lack of understanding and “misinformation” is being used to discredit the process culminating in the set-up of an agenda giving cues to the abandonment of the biometrics project,” he said.
“ZEC is not proposing to implement ‘biometric or electronic voting’; it is proposing a model of BVR which is very different from electronic voting (even though it can be used as a launch pad for electronic voting). Additionally, the process being proposed is not more vulnerable to cyber-attacks or hacking than any other electronic voter’s register or database.
“A biometric voter register, as mentioned before, is no different from any electoral register (as prescribed by the Electoral Act) or any other database. Therefore, its susceptibility to hacking and cyber-attacks should just be at the same level; but this is not even the case because these biometric databases are more robust and designed to protect the sensitive personal information they contain.”
While the State media was de-campaigning the BVR system, a section of the opposition movement  started demanding that the country should do away with the whole voter’s roll system altogether and adopt a system that would allow every adult with a national identity card (ID) to cast their vote anywhere in the country.
This is the system that was used in the  1980 elections, although IDs were not required.
The suggestion led to heated debate among stakeholders on how it would be possible to tally the numbers and account for the final number of votes.
However, the ERC responded to this proposal by issuing a statement in which it highlighted that while the ID system would curb voter intimidation and violence against voters as people would be able to vote anywhere in the country, voter registration is a legal requirement.
It then pointed out six main disadvantages of the proposed ID system, especially on the chaos that would result on deciding the allocation of polling stations and the distribution of voting materials.
“Simply put, an ID voting system will just not work. BVR ensures credible data, will provide a new voter registration process, a new infrastructure and a de-duplication process. BVR may not solve all voting problems, but it is a step in the right direction,” the ERC statement said, also warning that this proposed ID system would inadvertently bring back the Register General’s office to play a pivotal role in elections.
With fears that government was doing everything in its powers to find an excuse to justify ditching the BVR system, last week opposition parties, which have been suspicious of ZANU-PF’s motive, mobilised their members to protest against the government’s decision to take over the BVR process from the UNDP with the suspected aim of stymieing it.
ERC director, Tawanda Chimhini, last week said from indications on the ground, chances are very high that even if the BVR system is fully put in place, the old voters’ roll would still be retained.
He said for as long as this voters’ roll was not officially decommissioned, there was likelihood that members of some political parties would approach the courts on the eve of the elections to demand that they be allowed to vote on the basis that they are registered voters in terms of the old voters’ roll, citing a possible violation of their fundamental rights.
The old voters’ toll is so discredited that its use has resulted in unending electoral disputes.
In the 2013 general elections, there were over 100 000 voters aged over 100 years, all of whom were born on the same day, January 1, raising questions about what role ghost voters could play in alleged cases of rampant vote rigging. Financial Gazette