Opinionista Duduetsang Mokoele and Nomaqhawe Moyo 8 May 2019

Biometric voting has many pitfalls, but it could work in South Africa

There are strong arguments both for and against the introduction of biometric voting in SA, and it could be one way to combat youth apathy. But as both Kenya and Ghana have shown, there are problems with the technology, and it is very expensive.

As South Africans go to the polls, there is the talk of new, biometric technology to help the electoral process. Some argue the introduction of this technology is inevitable, given the significant increase worldwide in its use in elections over the past 20 years. Particularly in Africa and Asia, technology has often been the preferred solution to allegations of electoral malpractice, vote rigging, and an inefficient electoral process. But what exactly is biometric voting, and why is there reluctance in South Africa to adopting it for administering an election?

One expert in the field, Sonja Hof, defines biometrics as the science that uses technology to confirm the identity of individuals using biological features. Fingerprint scanners are probably the best-known and most commonly used examples of biometric technology. Other biometric machines use pictures of a person’s iris or a retina scanner that scans blood vessels to create a unique set of data that can be used for authentication. The entire human face is also a feature that can be used by biometric systems. Multi-biometric systems combine two or more biometric features. This combination yields more reliable and better results than a single method.

As the above brief description of biometric technology makes clear, biometrics can be used in an election to improve voter registration and identification; to produce a credible electoral register and to reduce electoral fraud. Biometric voting can:

  • Increase the credibility of the voters’ register by making fraudulent registration more difficult;

  • Improve the speed of identifying individuals during the voting process and thus speed up the voting process;

  • Contribute to faster vote counting and speedier delivery of the final election results;

  • Reduce the overall cost of the election process, over time; and

  • Make it easier for those who can’t easily access polling stations – such as the elderly, infirm or disabled – to vote.

Despite the above potential benefits, there have been concerns about adopting the new technology in South Africa. Debates have usually foregrounded the following concerns:

Fetishisation of technology’

Cheeseman et al have cautioned against what they have called the “fetishisation of technology”, namely attributing technology with transformative powers that it does not have, like solving societal problems without human agency and irrespective of the political environment. One of the most common examples cited is deploying technology in the education sector, as with the rollout of tablets. In this case, technology is assumed to have a positive effect on education outcomes, regardless of national particularities. In reality, as the tablets show, technology is not a panacea, and we must guard against assuming that biometric technology alone can assure free and fair elections.

What’s broken?

Some South Africans also point to the old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Detractors argue that South Africa already has an effective and credible democratic system, and new technology might threaten this. However, South Africa must not wait until there is a problem before administering biometric voting.

Furthermore, a dramatic and sudden shift from entirely paper-based voting to biometric voting can be costly and difficult to manage. While it is possible to move from a manual to a fully-functional biometric model, case studies across the globe suggest this is not advisable. Rather, an incremental approach, that draws on both manual and biometric processes, can help to limit the resources needed and the problems encountered.

At what cost?

Biometric systems can be very expensive, and the quality can be variable. Each polling station must be allocated a biometric kit. It is estimated that the equipment costs alone of the Kenyan elections of 2013 amounted to US$120-million, excluding other major operational costs such as staff training and distribution of machines.

It is essential to ensure that costs are kept down, as failure to do so may expose South Africa to debt through taking up loans to pay for equipment. Such loans can also create dependency on donors and result in a murky relationship between the government, donors/lenders and technology companies, which have their own interests.

Furthermore, South Africa is still grappling with the ramifications of state capture with much left to do to rid the country of the self-interested actors involved. Significant procurement and implementation opportunities could be perceived as a chance for profit-seeking behaviour. This factor has to be set against the potential benefits of the technology.

Security issues

Just as is the case with manual voting systems, biometric voting systems must be audited. Danny Thakkar is one of the founders of Bayometric, one of the leading manufacturers in the sector. He says it must be possible to examine the processes used to collect, count and re-count the votes to confirm the validity of the results. The audit system has to be able to detect voter fraud and provide proof that all counted votes are authentic. The audit system should also provide the ability for independent observers to monitor the election or referendum.

The above safeguards are important, but it is important for South Africa to bear in mind that responses to threats to the electoral process can only be as good as the country’s institutions, leadership and civic engagement. What good would biometric technology be, for example, if voter intimidation or vote buying is a reality?

Equipment failure

Like all technology, biometric technology can fail and contingency measures should always be in place to ensure that the equipment runs smoothly during an election. The Ghanaian elections of 2012 offer a good example of the strengths of biometric registration and identification, despite the fact that there were problems with the technology, including voting kits, failing.

However, a closer look reveals many factors at play. The polls had to take place over two days, not only because the voting kits failed but also because the delivery of ballot boxes to some regions was delayed, and there were disorderly queues. However, for the most part, a good portion of the blame was attributed to equipment manufacturers. Despite this, the election was declared a success and the procedural issues receded into the background.

Despite the potential problems the new biometric technology offers opportunities for South Africa – opportunities that bode well for what seems to be the inevitable future of digitised voting becoming the norm.

Policy pacing

Rapid technological advancements in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution raise questions about public policymakers’ abilities to adapt and respond. When regulations cannot keep up with technological innovation this is known as the “pacing problem”. If not managed appropriately this can induce policy paralysis which will have dire consequences for the governance and impact of nascent technologies.

Policymakers, therefore, have a responsibility to create an enabling environment for innovation and for protecting the users/citizens against the effects of disruptive technology. There is some time before the technology development leapfrogs even further; therefore South African policymakers still have the opportunity to shape the agenda and provide appropriate policy responses in the interest of strengthening democratic processes.

Youth engagement

Biometric technology can also help South Africa to tackle the challenges of engaging young voters. The Millennial Dialogue – a partnership between the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (Feps) and the Mapungubwe Institute of Strategic Reflection (Mistra) – investigated the attitudes of South African youth towards politics. The study found that one of the key barriers to voting identified by South African youth is inadequate electoral reform. The sentiment expressed was that the current voting process was, in fact, a mirror of the gap between the young population and its ageing leaders.

The benefits of biometric voting have much to offer but it is also critical to acknowledge its limits. Stakeholders are confronted with difficult questions which require honest responses. Piloting the use of biometrics in a by-election, for example, could be a start to providing the necessary answers and making incremental changes to the existing electoral process. DM

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