As South Africa prepares for municipal election later this year and the COVID-19 is becoming more rampant and lethal with each wave, the nation is urged to take stock of role of technology in facilitating the election processes. Election is one of the core practices in implementing democracy and so delays or postponements tarnish the democratic image of the nation. However, election under the current COVID-19 pandemic has presented countries globally with unique challenges. Nations are thus required to balance the need for credible elections while containing the devastating public health crisis against the importance of the legitimacy required to govern effectively. The new reality imposed by COVID-19 is testing democracy’s infrastructures across the globe. COVID-19 a communicable disease thriving in crowded places and human proximity has increased the advocacy for digitalization in most aspects of normal life activities, including the electoral process. Digitizing the electoral process is regarded as a necessary process and an effective mean for balancing public health concerns and credible elections. While the argument that technology can improve credibility of elections is old, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it to gain new attention and popularity within democratic spaces. An electoral system or voting system is a set of rules that determine how elections and referendums are conducted and how their results are determined. An electronic voting system, that is E-voting, limits crowds and human contact, thereby allowing voters to exercise their rights and civic duties with relatively lower health risks.
South Africa is amongst the top African nations leading in technology use. The presence of the overseas Internet fiber cable presents numerous opportunities for digitalization. The proliferation of mobile and wireless technology paves way for the usage of technology in reaching out voters and facilitating electronic voting. Mobile phones ownership and usage has penetrated the rural areas. With COVID-19 being a reality that might be with us for a while, technology has its merits in the adjustment of some the usual conduct of elections. The COVID-19 pandemic gives impetus for more nations to experiment with electronic voting, a tool publicized as useful in the long term, both in containing immediate spread of COVID-19 and also in ensuring electoral integrity. With the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) intending to introduce new voting management devices for the October 2021 municipal elections, it is essential to examine the pros and cons of using voting technologies. The IEC intends to launch a revamped public website and app for improved navigation and communications as well as a public reporting app for disinformation on social media in preparation of the upcoming election. This article thus provides insight of the successes and challenges associated with the use of technology in elections.
Merits of using new technology for voting amid COVID-19 pandemic
The new generation technology will allow for enhanced voter registration and monitoring of voter participation in real-time, including the ability to capture an address or place of residence during registration and to verify the address against ward boundaries;
The reality is that voting technology can limit the challenges of handling ballots and the risk of infections at polling stations. South Africa is urged to explore the application of technology in election processes to facilitate citizens’ registration and voting online from their homes either through websites or mobile phones.
Voting technology simplifies voting and improves voter turnout since it facilitates all categories of voters; people with disabilities, illnesses, the elderly, marginalized and those fearful of their lives, to vote from wherever they are.
Voting technology may assist in limiting human error or interference with the collation of votes and management of election results especially where votes collation is one of the weakest links in election management.
The voting technology may limit the chances of voters casting more than one vote at different voting stations, an incidence that marred South Africa’s 2019 national elections.
To address the question of transparency of the voting process, the IEC may introduce live streaming of the voting and collation Process. Voting ballots can be mailed in to limit crowds at polling stations and the process of tallying votes streamed live for transparency.
The voting technology serves as an online real-time voters’ roll on election day to further prevent multiple voting and to provide further demographic details of voter participation.
Social media and other technological tools ensure adequate and timely information to citizens and voters. The national electoral committee can utilize these platforms to relay important election information to the people. These processes helps to build trust in the process, and it was made possible because of an underlying positive political culture.
Also, social media platforms have proven useful in rallying and mobilizing people to undertake their civic duties. Political parties can use these platforms for campaigning and avoid physical rallies that pose health risks amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
While voting technologies are pegged on numerous advantages, several challenges and negative experiences are also noted that South Africa must consider.
Technology has also been used a tool for undermining elections and creating an undue advantage, especially for incumbents. Therefore, the IEC need to be on alert to the dangers of manipulating elections with technology. Kenya’s 2017 attempt to use an electronic voting system led to the cancellation of the presidential election by the Kenyan Supreme Court – a first in Africa. Another example is the experience of card reader system used in Nigeria’s 2019 election in which sabotage prevailed and only created a false assurance of credibility that made it easy for candidates to over-vote and stuff ballot boxes.
Credible worries about Internet vulnerabilities and transparency undermines voters’ trusts thus creating a reverse effect of technology discouraging their participation in the election. Concerns over security of voters’ information and their votes for which if divulged in the wrong hands may be used for political profiling and discrimination.
Technical glitches associated with e-voting technologies may undermine voters trust on the process;
The issue of cost and ownership of technology used for elections is also a major concern that IEC needs to address on the onset of adopting e-voting systems.
Balancing the advantages of e-voting systems against these concerns is a task that the South African IEC and policymakers will have to confront. The intersection of corruption, determination to win elections, for-profit foreign entities with no social stake on the country, and geopolitical interests is a deadly combination for the integrity of elections in South Africa. Elections sit at the heart of democracy, for it is through elections that we recruit the leadership required to champion the policies and plans required to improve the collective conditions within the country and the international standing. As COVID-19 rattles the world, unwittingly strengthening autocrats and bringing new elements of inequality, including political profiling, political and biomedical discrimination, South Africa needs its best to not only survive, but thrive through the upcoming municipal election. Technology can be both a weapon and a shield, a powerful enabler, and a crippling agent to the election. We risk exacerbating the democratic regression spreading across South Africa if the underlying, structural problems remain unaddressed. Therefore, here are some things that must be addressed to ensure the best is attained upon e-voting technology.
Firstly, reforming the culture of what it means to be in power and what it means to be a citizen to repair the broken social contract between citizens and the state. The political economy of governance and elections creates powerful incentives for thwarting democracy, and until these incentives are reduced or removed through constitution and electoral reforms, introducing technology will not improve the legitimacy of elections.
Secondly, there is a need to rebuild social cohesion through dialogue, reconciliation, education, and social reprogramming. Unified citizens are critical for demanding good governance regardless of ethnic and religious considerations, and part of this entails envisioning a new elite consensus, which the pandemic provides the opportunity to do.
Thirdly, the state and private sector must invest more in research and development, population data management, and home-grown voting technologies.
And finally, there is a need to create and enforce the legal frameworks for protecting privacy, digital rights, and personal information while using technology to improve population data management that is essential for planning elections and budgeting for public goods and tax reforms. The nation must ensure that citizens are vigilant, and our courts are independent enough to protect these rights fiercely. To some extent this has been addressed by the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), which commenced operation 1st July 2021.
As much as technology can improve many aspects of our lives, it is not a ‘morally neutral good.’ Its use and deployment will mirror the intent and values of those who make and use it. Technology, therefore, and elections can only be as good as the society that deploys and plans for it. Caution needs to be exercised to ensure that proper preparations are done such that South Africa gets the most out of the soon to be launched e-voting systems for the municipal elections in October. Legal and regulator frameworks must be provided for to ensure e-voting systems are not enablers for sabotaging the noble democratic process. Moreover, the government must collaborate with other stakeholders, such as NGOs and FBOs in laying a foundation for a credible election through advocacy on necessary cultural reforms, social cohesion and civic duties and responsibilities within the society. Adopting e-voting systems for the upcoming elections is one thing, ensuring integrity and credibility of the election process is but another thing.
Maria Lauda Goyayi is a researcher at the School of Management, IT and Public Governance, UKZN. She writes in her personal capacity.