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Technology’s role in South Africa’s democratic elections: past, present and future

July 4, 2019 • General

Technology’s role in SA’s democratic elections: past, present and future

Glen Mashinini, Chairperson of IEC.

We have all read the controversies around the recent 8 May 2019 national elections, which were spread like wildfire on social media, but in the end, this year’s elections were judged to be free and fair by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). Certainly, IEC chairperson Glen Mashinini endorses this position, while agreeing that technology brings with it both solutions and challenges.

He was speaking at Sun City on day one of Saphila 2019, the bi-annual conference of the African SAP User Group (AFSUG) where he provided insight into an era where technology is built into every single interaction. Mashinini’s content was another demonstration, in a truly South African context, of the role that IT plays in shaping our broader society as well as life and business in general.

Mashinini presented a plenary session on “The importance of the voter experience as election management bodies around the world seek to incorporate ever-more technology into the electoral process”. He clarified that in the past 25 years, South Africa has held six national and provincial elections that have been judged to be free and fair, and took the delegates on a journey back in time to compare the history of how technology has been used – or not – from one election to the next since 1994.

SA voting facts from history
“When we remember the first free and fair voting experience in 1994,” said Mashinini, “we remember the long queues and the great expectations, as well as the fact that the voting process around the country took three days. In the end, the 1994 election results were accepted by South Africans – and the world – as being free and fair, and these first democratic elections were hailed as a triumph of democracy.

“The first electoral commission in 1994 had only four months to plan and deliver the first elections from scratch, with no previous blueprint or experience, or institution to back it. At the time, there was also no voters’ roll, while there were six different types of identity document in use around the country. With so many challenges, and so little time to prepare, there was no way to turn to technology to assist us – everything in 1994 was done manually.”

He explained that for the 1999 elections, it was very clear that the IEC needed to change certain processes and embrace technology better. “We needed a permanent, professional and technology-driven electoral management body that was able to design and implement the electoral process, and for these elections the voters’ roll was created.”

In fact, the 1999 elections as run by the IEC were remarkable for a number of reasons, including the following:
• The IEC prepared and delivered these second democratic national and provincial elections in the record time of only 13 months.
• The voting population of South Africa was registered in just nine days.
• Through the use of barcode scanner technology, the IEC was able to consolidate registration records daily and produce the first common national voters’ roll within seven days of the conclusion of voter registration.

“For these achievements in the 1999 elections,” said Mashinini, “the IEC won a number of international awards for using technology to advance mankind. And with successive elections, the use of technology has improved. Between 1999 and 2019, the voters’ roll has grown by 47 per cent from 1999 and 2019; the voting stations have grown by 56 per cent from 14,650 to 22,924, and citizens based overseas are now able to vote abroad where before, only government officials were able to enjoy this privilege. We also have categories of special voters.
“Further, we have gone from a zero enrolment on the voters’ roll to 26.7 million, and in terms of ballot counting, we have moved from counting centres to counting taking place at the actual voting stations. For these last elections, the constitutional court has also ruled that it is a requirement to have addresses on the voters’ roll linking voters to actual physical addresses, and thereby voting wards. In a nutshell, when we compare the situations in 1994 and 2019, it is like chalk and cheese.”

A matter of trust – and how tech can throw fuel on the fire
Mashinini noted that for the IEC, the most important currency is that of trust. During these 2019 elections, he said, the alleged issue of double voting was fuelled by technology in the form of social media, and this had ‘exploded’ by the end of the day.
“The key question was: could these elections be trusted? This question went right to the heart of the IEC’s core currency, and yet there was nothing fundamentally different in the election processes themselves.”

So why did the allegation of double voting possibilities – meaning election fraud – rear its ugly head? Mashinini says it can be explained by two main factors during these elections which have impacted on their controls, namely Section 24 of the Electoral Act, and the replacement of the green bar-coded ID documents with smart ID cards.

“Section 24 A of the Act allows you to vote at a place which is not your registered voting station, for example if you are sick and in hospital, or for emergency and other personnel who are working on voting day. Section 24 A exists because it is supremely important to allow all citizens to exercise their right to vote. What we at the IEC did not anticipate was the unexpected application of this enabling piece of legislation by the citizens of our country. With the advent of technology today, and using their smartphones, people started ‘shopping around’ for shorter voting queues, and what was meant to be a special facility became a convenience facility. This led to certain shortages in some voting stations.

“Another factor at play has been the growing use of smart ID cards to replace the green bar-coded ID book. On the latter, IEC officials could place stickers to show a person has voted, but not so with the smart card version. Added to this was the flaring of the urban myth that the ink on voters’ thumbs could be removed. This ink was meant for law-abiding citizens.

“In the end our systems held, but the excitement on the side that was generated by social media did not make it easy. To win one seat, you need an average of around 45,000 votes. To rig the election would, therefore, require logistics that are just not feasible. But, when we remember that integrity and trust is the IEC’s currency, the situation, all told, became difficult, and an example of how technology could simultaneously provide solutions and challenges at the same time.”

As regards the future of technology and elections going forward, Mashinini said he believes that technology is the only driver capable of addressing the risks and challenges that lie ahead. Such challenges, he noted, include the accuracy of the voters’ roll and safeguarding against potential voter fraud.

“We now also need the next generation of young people in the IEC,” he said. “When we first set up the original IEC staff, the ages were averaging in the mid-twenties and early thirties. Today, the average age of employees is now in the 40s, and we need to address this.”
Mashinini noted that technology obviously comes with its own risks and challenges, including the investment and costs involved in implementing it, and the usual cybersecurity threats.

“The technologies are here for electronic voting. For example, there is already electronic voting in Brazil and India, whereby you can walk into a booth and, like an ATM, the ballot paper pops up. It can come with issues of trust from the general populace, however. Britain, in fact, has banned electronic voting. At the IEC, we look at the extent to which we can automate without taking a risk that can have a negative impact on credibility. We had also set up a media monitoring unit that can take down messages not consistent with lawful messaging, and this was a first on the continent.

“We face a major challenge in South Africa [of limited resources] in the context of being a developing country, where there are other challenges that need addressing. However, we only need to imagine what would happen to our economy if we find ourselves unable to make the announcement that our elections were indeed free and fair,” he concluded.

Staff Writer

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