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 which 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 the physical characteristic (face image and fingerprints) of each voter. It is important to emphasise this point as there have been a lot of misconception regarding the usage of biometrics in the 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) on a computer. This is very similar to the process we go through when we apply for National IDs (zvitupa) 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 compare the fingerprints. So a person who registers multiple times under different names will be picked out by the system.
The availability of the BVR kits means the BVR registration exercise can now be kick-started. However, there are a number of issues that ZEC should now be diligently looking into in order to ensure that this process is a success.
It is essential that ZEC ensures that staff who are going to be handling these kits are adequately trained and skilled. It is unfortunate that the training of the “BVR Master Trainers and Technicians” could not be started earlier; the 5 days allocated for the training may not be adequate. Technology is only as good as the way it is deployed. In order to identify multiple registrations; which is the main benefit of the system, clean data must be submitted. Finger prints and photographs must be clearly captured in the right way, which requires trained and capable staff. Essential skills for staff operating biometric voter registration (BVR) include basic computer skills, with an emphasis on data capture, 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. The timelines are tight, but the preparedness of the registration team is crucial to the success of the process.
Since election technology has the potential to directly affect the political process, it is important to engender a sense of ownership in its users. In order 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 are to be taken into account when deploying these kits to ensure that people with special needs (the old, and disabled for example) are included. Challenges that may occur during data capture include unreadable prints of old people and physical workers (for example miners), people with missing fingers and software bugs. Contingency measures should be in place to make sure that none of the affected people are 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 collected from individual registration centres to the central registry. Safeguards should be in place to prevent corruption or manipulation of the 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 ensure that there are measures in place for the biometric data collected to be securely transported from registration centres to data centres. 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 emanating from ZEC are not helpful. 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 got time to resolve this issue.
The challenges to ZEC are not only restricted to technology and procurement. Advanced technology alone cannot guarantee the integrity of elections without corresponding legal and administrative protective 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 Justice Rita Makarau (the ZEC Chairperson), the Kenyan electoral dispute has highlighted that failures to adhere to constitutional and other legal requirements can occur and may be challenged.
Associated with acquisition of biometric data is the issue of data protection and right to privacy. While there is a need for electoral data to be in the public domain, the balance between, on one hand, the reasonable demands for transparency in electoral processes and the right to privacy of the citizen on the other is a delicate exercise which 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.