• Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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BusinessDay

How technology is changing the face of elections in Nigeria

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In today’s world, technology has significantly impacted the electoral process, from voter registration to voting and results collation. Election technologies have come a long way in Nigeria and we have seen the integration of technology into various elements of the Electoral System Value Chain, which comprises different stages of the electoral process

Typically, the first stage of the electoral system value chain is voter registration and enrolment. This is the process of registering eligible voters and creating a Voters Register. The use of technology in this stage has made voter registration more efficient and accurate. Electronic voter registration systems have made it possible to capture voter data and store them in a centralized database. In Nigeria, INEC has deployed at least two technologies to digitise this stage of the value chain. These are The INEC Voter Enrollment Device (IVED) and the Online Voter registration systems. These systems were designed to ensure a credible Voters Register by among other things capturing and storing individuals’ biometric data, such as fingerprints and facial features. This technology relies on the fact that these biometric characteristics are unique to each person and create distinctive digital identities for voters. A robust digital identity infrastructure such as the INEC Voter Enrollment Device (IVED) is therefore foundational to deploying a credible Voters Register

The second stage of the electoral system value chain is voter accreditation or authentication. This stage involves the verification of the identity of voters before they are allowed to vote. The use of biometric technology, such as fingerprints and facial recognition, has made voter authentication more accurate and efficient. The Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) is the technology deployed by Nigeria’s INEC to drive this critical stage of the electoral process. The BVAS is a biometric system used to verify the identity of voters before they are allowed to vote using fingerprint and/or facial recognition technology to match the biometric data of the voter with the data already stored in the system during voter registration. The BVAS serves as an Electronic Voters Register (EVR), it verifies the genuineness of the Permanent Voters Card (PVC) and establishes the identity of voters through fingerprint or facial authentication.

It goes without saying that the use of election technology must be considered in the context of relevant laws, regulations, and guidelines hence it is important to note that the Electoral Act (2022) provides the foundational legal framework for the electoral process in Nigeria. While the Act does not make express mention of the BVAS, it provides as follows:

Section 47.—(1) A person intending to vote in an election shall present himself with his voter’s card to a Presiding officer for accreditation at the polling unit in the constituency in which his name is registered. (2) To vote, the presiding officer shall use a smart card reader or any other technological device that may be prescribed by the Commission, for the accreditation of voters, to verify, confirm or authenticate the particulars of the intending voter in the manner prescribed by the Commission.

The generic use of the words “any other technological device” provides legal cover for the use of the BVAS in the electoral process in Nigeria

The third stage of the electoral system value chain is voting. Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) have revolutionized the voting process in countries across the world, making it faster and more accurate. Electronic voting machines, for instance, can instantly record and transmit vote data to a central server, reducing the time and resources required for manual vote processing. However, the use of EVMs can be exclusionary to certain communities that lack access to digital devices or are not familiar with the technology and this is perhaps more relevant to Nigeria where a vast majority of the population struggles with the use of digital technology. Nigeria’s INEC has not deployed EVMs for any elections in Nigeria

It is interesting to note however that the Electoral Act (2022) made specific reference to EVMs as follows: Section 41.—(1) The Commission shall provide suitable boxes, electronic voting machine or any other voting device for the conduct of elections.

It remains to be seen if this reference to EVMs speaks of things to come in the future. But to be clear, the actual voting as a component of the electoral system value chain in Nigeria today is a completely manual process.

Result Counting, Collation, and transmission which is the fourth stage of the electoral system value chain appear to be a hybrid process in Nigeria. The hybrid model refers to an electoral system that utilizes a combination of digital and manual processes.

What is apparent is that the Nigerian electoral process is a hybrid model. A hybrid model involves the use of both digital technology and manual processes in the electoral system.

 

The counting of votes as stipulated by Section 60 (1) – (4) is a manual process: 60.—(1) The Presiding officer shall, after counting the votes at the polling unit, enter the votes scored by each candidate in a form to be prescribed by the Commission as the case may be; (2) The form shall be signed and stamped by the presiding officer and counter signed by the candidates or their polling agents where available at the polling unit; (3) The presiding officer shall give to the polling agents and the police officer where available a copy each of the completed forms after it has been duly signed as provided under subsection (2); (4) The presiding officer shall count and announce the result at the polling unit, and (5) The presiding officer shall transfer the results including total number of accredited voters and the results of the ballot in a manner as prescribed by the Commission.

The collation of votes as stipulated by Section 62 (1) appears to be a manual process. It states as follows: After the recording and announcement of the result, the presiding officer shall deliver same along with election materials under security and accompanied by the candidates or their polling agents, where available, to such person as may be prescribed by the Commission

Section 60 (5) provides for the transmission of election results in accordance with the procedure determined by INEC. The INEC by its guidelines introduced the INEC Election Result Viewing Portal (IReV). The INEC Results Viewing (IReV) portal is a dedicated web portal for the public to view polling unit results as soon as they are finalised on election day. The extent to which the aforementioned Section 60 (5) and Section 62 (1) and also Section 64 (5) of the Electoral Act (2022) provides for a hybrid transfer or transmission of election results is unclear and it will be interesting to see how these provisions will be interpreted by the appropriate institutions.

What is apparent is that the Nigerian electoral process is a hybrid model. As earlier stated, a hybrid model involves the use of both digital technology and manual processes in the electoral system. As seen from the above, digital technology is used for voter enrolment and authentication, while the actual voting and result collation is done manually. Yet, the enabling laws and guidelines provide for the electronic transmission of results in accordance with the procedure determined by INEC.

It is noteworthy that the BVAS in addition to its voter authentication functionality (second stage of the electoral system value chain) is designed to take a photograph of the duly executed manual result sheet at each Polling Unit, store the same natively (in the event of no immediate internet service) and upload to the INEC Backend for display on the Result Viewing Portal (IReV) in PDF format.

An example that highlights the hybrid model of the Nigerian electoral process is the nature of the Voters Register. Under the current legal framework, the Voters Register is now hybrid. The Voters register exists as an Electronic Voters Register (EVR) in the INEC Portal and is concurrently distributed on the BVAS while the same register exists in manual mode which same is used alongside the BVAS at each polling unit. The implications of this will become more glaring in the event of election disputes. The auditable manual paper trail will be complimentary to the electronic audit trails, log files, verifications codes, and digital signatures in an adjudicatory process

Despite the benefits of the hybrid model, which includes providing a backup in case of technological failures or cyber-attacks, there are also some challenges that must be overcome. One major challenge is ensuring that the manual and digital systems are integrated seamlessly. For instance, the digital system for voter enrolment and authentication must be able to communicate effectively with the manual system for voting and result collation and which in turn must sync with the electronic transmission of results. In addition, there is a need for adequate training of electoral officials to ensure that they can use the technology effectively while managing the manual processes efficiently at the same time.

The hybrid model remains a viable option for countries that wish to adopt technology in their electoral process while ensuring the integrity and transparency of their elections. Developing countries around the world have successfully implemented this approach and have seen significant improvements in their electoral systems’ transparency and accuracy.

It is essential to note that the use of technology in the electoral process requires careful planning and implementation. The adoption of election technologies must comply with the legal and regulatory framework, and the stakeholders involved in the electoral process must be adequately trained to use these technologies. This approach requires a collaborative effort between governments, political actors, technology providers, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders to ensure that the electoral process is transparent, secure, and inclusive.

In conclusion, the rise of hybrid models in the electoral process is a reflection of the growing importance of technology in our society. While there are still challenges associated with the hybrid model, it provides a balanced approach to utilizing technology in the electoral process while ensuring the integrity of our elections. It is imperative that we continue to explore innovative ways to leverage technology in the electoral process, while also ensuring that our democratic values are upheld.

Rotimi Ogunyemi is a Council Member and Chair of the ICT Committee of the NBA-Section on Business Law. He was a Member of, the NBA Electoral Reform & Audit Committee (2021-2022), and a Resident IT Expert of, the NBA Elections Appeal Committee (2022). He is a Technology Attorney