The recent amendment of the Electoral Act, which has, among other things, introduced electronic voting and the cancellation of supplimentary registration, has divided the nation right in the middle.
While one section seems happy with explanations that the machines will facilitate a faster voting and counting process, the other argues that the machines are intended to save the ruling Botswana Democratic Party(BDP) from losing power at the 2019 general elections. Matters are not helped by the fact that, incidentally, when electronic voting was introduced in Namibia in 2014, the ruling SWAPO improved its electoral fortunes to 77%. The party had registered 76% and 74% of the popular vote in the 2004 and 2009 parliamentary elections respectively. Stakeholders remain confused how the cancellation of supplementary registration will eliminate voter trafficking.
Singing the praises of the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM), former secretary of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Gabriel Seeletso, who is now doing consultancy work for the election management body, said that, besides making it possible for voters to spend less time queuing to cast their vote, the machines will eliminate spoilt ballots which sometimes bring about ties.
“The EVM will, therefore, improve the two key electoral processes of voting and counting,” he told stakeholders at Leseding community hall in the Francistown west constituency recently. He also explained the undesirability of ties in an election as they lead to by-elections which are expensive. EVM have been used since 1960 in America before their use spread to other parts of the world. In Africa, they were used for the first time in Namibia in that country’s 2014 general elections.
Unlike in Botswana, the use of EVM started after a lengthy engagement on the matter. EIS says discussions of introduction of EVMs in Namibian elections started in 2004. The need for reform was apparently given more impetus by the challenges faced by the country’s management body in the counting and tabulation process in the 2009 elections which had led to a delay in the announcement of the election results.
Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa contends that after the Namibian elections, “There is a general consensus among observer groups that electronic voting was largely successful in Namibia, with one observer mission even recommending its adoption by other Southern African countries, and their permanent adoption of electoral voting in Namibia.”
The raging debate currently underway on the EVMs has specifically to do with the issue of integrity. Ironically, one of the benefits of electronic voting is that, “It may reduce fraud.” As opponents of the EVM in Botswana have said, the problem with the new Act is that it does not provide for the use of a proper verification process. The 2014 Namibian Electoral Act introduced the requirement that the use of voting machines be subject to the simultaneous utilisation of a verifiable paper trail for every vote cast by a voter. Any vote cast could be verified by a count of paper trail.
The opposition in Botswana has threatened to go to court to compel government to ensure that the envisaged EVMs have got operational specifications such as the availability of a verifiable paper trail in order to close out the possibility of fraud by the ruling party. The opposition will be emboldened in their threats to go to court to learn that, “The introduction of this requirement in the Namibian Electoral Act of 2014 results from a court case in India, in which the Indian Supreme Court ruled that verifiable paper trail should be indispensable for voter confidence in the system.”.
To allay fears of those worried that the machines may be manipulated at the expense of the opposition, Seeletso told stakeholders that the machines are not hackable because they are not computer-based. However, Motlhaleemang Moalosi disagrees. “This is preposterous. What he is saying is not true. Seeletso probably does not know what a computer is. Any electronic device, be it a pen or microwave, even if it is not networked, is computer based. In any case, the fact that the several machines from the polling stations will be connected to the tabulator at the end of polling means that the machines are not standalones at all,” said the computer expert.
His fear is that, the tabulator could be inserted with a malicious code that could then override what the machines that are connected to it had captured at the polling stations. “This would distort the results. So, the BDP may choose not to manipulate the machines at the polling stations but the tabulator itself and win the elections,” said Moalosi who does not understand what the reluctance to introduce a verifiable voter paper audit trail is all about.
“Seeletso should tell the stakeholders what this is. Is it a cost issue or what,”? he wondered. Seeletso has however explained where the problem comes from. He blames ignorance on the part of those against the machine for which he recommends voter education. “People do not easily accept new things. You will remember that when O Mang was first introduced, people objected and made a lot of insinuations about it. There is always fear of the unknown. So, this is not surprising,” he said.
When challenged to explain why the introduction of the EVMs was prioritised ahead of the other reforms which have been proposed over the years, the former IEC boss pleaded with the stakeholders to not kill the messenger. “I have recently learnt a Kalanga proverb which says Ntumwa aana mbonje (a messenger has no wounds). The law has already been made and my job is to explain to you what it says,” said Seeletso.
Stakeholders, especially the opposition are also opposed to the fact that Bharat Electronics has already been chosen as the preferred supplier. They say there should have been transparency right from the onset including surrounding the choice of the supplier.