In Nigeria, as in most other countries in Africa, election periods generate their own anxieties for the simple reason that their outcomes are not easily predictable. Manipulation of results which in local parlance is dismissed as rigging is commonplace. The fierce political battle between the Democratic Party and their Republican counterpart in the United States of America in that country’s last election cycle emphasised the point that elections everywhere change the fate of nations, influence participation and activism in politics, and deeply affect the lives and attitudes of citizens.
It is for these reasons that determined efforts are made to ensure that the voting procedure is credible enough to justify the immense regards in which most nations hold democracy as a system of governance. This is why the citizens, on their part, insist that election systems must work and also be convinced that they actually work. This has given rise to strident calls for electronic voting which is believed can eliminate or at least ameliorate incidences of irregularities in the election process.
But this can only be achieved if the electoral law, in the case of Nigeria, is amended and brought up to date with international best practices. That is to say, that the Act must contain provisions for electronic voting (e- voting). So far, that expectation has not been met as the Electoral Act itself has been turned into a subject of politicking regardless of its potential positive contributions to the enhancement of the democratic process.
This newspaper has been on the forefront of demands for an electronic voting system and a law to back it up. Our argument has always been that the Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines to be used, as a technology can drastically reduce the cost of election administration. The initial investment costs are recouped by eliminating ballot paper printing, multiplicity of polling units and result sheet printing.
Political analysts state that electronic voting is more cost-effective in the long run. As is to be expected, the initial costs for digital voting is high because of the investment in infrastructure. But like in every investment, overtime, the cost curve points downwards because of durability of the machines which can be used in multiples of election cycles as well as the resultant elimination of cubicles, ballot boxes and paper votes as only the result sheet is taken to collation centres.
From our own perspective, because of the deployment of this electronic voting system, voters are expected to gain better voting experience at the polls, more confident that their vote will be correctly counted, and are able to vote more easily and efficiently. Similarly, the government is potentially able to increase voter turnout, reduce costs, increase voter confidence, renew interest in the political system (and voting), and democracy itself.
In our considered opinion, one of the significant benefits of this new system when eventually adopted is the possibility for increased efficiency. With electronic voting machines, voters can submit their votes and be reasonably confident that their vote will count, stop voters from common election faults, such as picking too many or no candidates thereby increasing the general effectiveness of voting. Electronic voting, without doubt, also holds the possibility of increasing the ease of voting.
Furthermore, it is our view that electronic voting also has the ability to reduce fraud, by eliminating the opportunity for ballot tampering as paper ballots can be directly printed by the balloting machine and dropped in the sealed box for transparency and as a backup in case of a recount necessity.
However, there have been ethical concerns in the debate surrounding electronic voting. At times, it seems even that the ethics are the most important factor of discussion. Worse is the possibility of hacking. By far, the biggest disadvantage of an electronic voting machine is election hacking. This can be achieved if electronic voting is online and internet based. As with any electronic device, there is always the risk that someone could illegally alter the results of an election. This could be done either through physical tampering or a remote attack over the internet. But stand-alone balloting machine at the polling station not connected to internet or any local area network cannot be hacked.
One thing to consider about electronic voting as the debate progresses is that the success often do rest directly on the ability of the electronic voting machines to function in the way the voting district needs and prefers. These demands that the machines come with developments in software and mechanical functionality, especially those that would ensure accuracy, privacy and verifiability
The debate has also delved into the design of the machine indicating that any machine to be adopted for the purpose must necessarily ensure ultra-high resolution, displays contests page by page showing parties per page during the voting process, accommodate alternate languages to English (e.g. Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba plus all other known languages used in the Nigeria), provide accessibility to blind voters and others with physical disabilities through the use of voice assistance in any ballot language and the use of an accessible keyboard having raised and tactile functional keys.
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