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To trust to not to trust: Our experience with technology at elections

In December 2007 Kenya held her third General Elections under multiparty democracy. After announcement of the results, violence broke out in many parts of the country, with claims that the elections had been rigged. An agreement that came to be known as the National Accord was brokered by an African Union sponsored panel of African personalities. Under this framework, an Independent Review Commission (IREC) led by Judge Johann Kriegler was formed and tasked with investigating the cause of the post-election violence.  IREC found that there were so many weakness in Kenya’s Constitutional and legal environment that contributed to the low credibility of elections.

Among the recommendations that IREC made was that there should be a new , independent Electoral Management Body (EMB). That body was to, among other tasks,  carry out a fresh voter registration exercise and to generally restore confidence in the electoral system.

The then Electoral Commission of Kenya was disbanded and the Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC) formed. There was a process of constitutional review and IIEC successfully conducted a constitutional referendum in August 2010. The Constitution was passed and a new electoral body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) formed to conduct future elections. Notably, results of the 2010 referendum were transmitted using mobile phones and viewed in almost real time at the national tallying centre. Also, the chair of the defunct IIEC was appointed as the chair of the IEBC.

New Perspectives

It is widely agreed that Kenya’s elections and governance feature on issues of inequitable distribution of resources. Voters are widely mobilized along ethnic lines and for instance, in the institution of the presidency, if a person from a certain tribe becomes president, majority of the tribe feels that they “have clinched the presidency”.  The new Constitution attempted to address some of these and other historical problems by creating a new governance system and enhancing the Bill of Rights.

The 2013 Elections were therefore special in that unlike in the past where people voted for three representatives, they were now voting in six. Kenya had also developed on the social and technological front, having over 30 million mobile phone subscribers, of which about 8.5 are Internet users.

In December 2012 IEBC undertook an electronic voter registration exercise where biometric voter registration (BVR) was employed. The BVR kits were simple laptops, with a camera, a finger-print scanner and battery pack.  Each kit was standalone and voter information collected during the day would be updated at a centre each evening. It is thought that IEBC avoided real time updating of the voter’s register to reduce the chances of the same being hacked and compromising of the data. When the register was open for inspection in January, it was noted that of the over 14 million registered voters, about 31,000 voters were missing due to attempts to register twice and other errors.

In March voting was largely meant to be manual. The identification of voters was supposed to be electronic while the voting, counting and tallying was to be manual. The presiding officers at the polling stations were given hand held devices (Nokia Phones) fitted with a Results Transmission System (RTS). These results were to be transmitted through Safaricom’s (a local GSM Company) network to the IEBC ‘s servers. IEBC had a tallying centre from where national observers and the media would receive the results.

Come February 24th 2013 and IEBC carried out a simulated voting exercise. In close to 80% of the centres, the electronic voter identification failed while the RTS did not work as efficiently as expected. IEBC assured the public that it would resolve these problems.

On March 4th voting day, the electronic voter identification failed in most polling stations. The IEBC personnel resorted to the manual register. As mentioned before, it was a big election (or six elections) and so the sheer amount of work that the polling personnel had to undertake, coupled with the novelty of the system was overwhelming. On average, small polling stations were ready to transmit their results from 10:00pm on the night of 4th March. Medium polling stations had not yet begun counting while most of the larger ones, those with from 500-100 voters per stream, had not finished the voting exercise by 10:00pm.

At some point most presiding officers reported that they were unable to log into the RTS and where they were finally able to, they could not transmit their data due to network errors. That notwithstanding, results started trickling in to the national tallying centre and one candidate was leading. One thing that was noted with concern was that the number of rejected votes was quite high, getting to 338,592 rejected votes out of a total of 5,653,852. It was later learnt that there was a bug in the system that had multiplied the rejected voted by a factor of 8.This was among the reasons that made the IEBC switch off the electronic tallying and resort to manual tallying.

By 6:30 pm Thursday, the IEBC had officially announced results from 132 constituencies.  The candidate leading was Uhuru Kenyatta of Jubilee Coalition, followed by Raila Odinga of Cord Coalition.  After manual tallying of all votes, Jubilee was announced as the winners. Cord have gone to court challenging the results.

Some of the claims made on social media and elsewhere with regard to the system and technology are as follows:

a)      There were procurement irregularities that may have led to one party having more knowledge of the system hence undue advantage  at the elections

b)      One party is alleged to have had access to the IEBC database and to have manipulated the results so as to make it seem as if they were ahead. Allegations about foreigners/Western power houses having access to the system and supporting one party are also in the air.

c)       Cord supporters point to a conflict of interest with one of the companies hosting IEBC data, Kencall Ltd, having directors who may be related to Jubilee’s top brass

d)      Questions are being asked on the redundancy of the IEBC system, whether there was there a good backup, etc

e)      Aside from the party to party allegations, Kenyans are wondering if they got value for their money, seeing the technology, from electronic voter registration, to the database, server, RTS , hardware etc were quite costly.

f)       A big question is whether in the event of a repeat election, Kenyans would want to use the electronic system or manual system and what changes would need to be made to satisfy them of the credibility of such a system

 

These issues are before a court for determination and their merit or otherwise will soon be known. Yet they have brought out a side of Kenyans that has left many concerned. On social media, debate has many a time taken ugly tribal trajectories with some seriously insulting others. The Chief Justice, who is the presiding judge in the election petitions, has had to remind the parties in the suits and their supporters to keep the calm and respect the institution of the court. The police have also advised against gatherings around the court premises, political rallies and hate speech on social media.

There are two sides of technology that have been evident in this electoral process: The first being the attempt to use technology to instill confidence in electoral management. Kenyans had and still have a lot of faith in the technology but it seems not so much in the human part of it. It is not easy to tell what went wrong with the system without a proper audit of the same, and this is also the subject of another election petition that has been instituted by the civil society.

The second is the use of technology to vent out. In the past, people would express themselves but the speed and magnitude with which information on social media spreads is exponential. There is also a sense of permanence in the way information is stored on social media, and if our freedom of expression in the past threatened the Kenyan nationhood, freedom of expression plus social media has really shaken it.

The government’s response to social media has been to police this space. We are informed that our text messages are under surveillance, big brother is watching our Facebook accounts. Of course the state needs to do something to arrest the situation, and the efforts so far have been useful in deterring speech meant to incite, compared to what was witnessed in the same period before the 2007 elections. The social media users’ response to the state is to make actions taken by the state the subject of discussion, and at times in comedy style. For example, notices sent to certain celebrity social media users (warning them that they were being investigated for hate speech) are circulating on the Internet. Calls made to people concerning their speech online have also been uploaded for anyone to listen to. And people are not just interested in secondary data- if you make a post that you have been warned to desist from using certain language, your followers will require evidence of the same. They will then spend hours analyzing it, and abusing others while at it.

Should Kenya then switch off Facebook and Twitter? (and, as one person put it on a light touch, allow people to actually work). I have personally complained about the intolerance among us, where an opinion can only be right if it is the same as mine. However, I also think we have made some gains since the 2007/08 period. For instance, we have a better constitutional environment, our judiciary is in the process of reforms and we generally have more and better access to technology. Maybe the sum total of this atmosphere is that we are no longer underground. We are free to make noise until we have it! After all, our fore-parents fought for this space. I only wish we were careful not to poke our neighbour’s eardrums even as we did.

 

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