Continuing our series of election reports, we are pleased to welcome an immediate post-election report (sent to me from Kenya three hours ago, Tuesday morning) on this weekend’s general election in Kenya from UCLA political scientist Seema Shah. Pre-election reports are available here, here, and here.
Kenyan elections have been underway for slightly more than 24 hours, and the much-touted voting technology, or lack thereof, has been at the center of attention.
Within hours of the opening of the polling centers, reports from around the country announced the failure of the biometric voter identification system. This technology, which recorded voters’ fingerprints and other biographical data during the voter registration process, was meant to then identify registered voters on Election Day, using Kenyans’ individual biometric identity information. Due to a number of problems, including power outages, low battery life of the devices and polling officials’ difficulty accessing the central system, however, many stations had to resort to using the manual register.
The use of the manual register made incredibly long lines even slower to move. Voters had formed queues before dawn in some areas, and some polls, which opened late, saw voters continuing to wait under an increasingly fierce sun. Even where the voting centers opened on time, progress was slow. It was, after all, the first election since the promulgation of the new constitution, which created a devolved system and requires Kenyans to vote for six different public officers. Many polling centers also struggled to organize the thousands of voters in line into shorter “streams,” which grouped voters into alphabetically ordered groups. Lines were so cumbersome that many waited for hours, sometimes on the main roads outside of the polling centers, only to find that their streams inside were relatively empty. If they had been able to enter the correct streams from the beginning of the process, instead of having had to first wait in the longer, main line just to enter the station, they might have moved more efficiently. Still, Kenyans showed true commitment, enduring the wait with patience. One woman even delivered her baby at a polling station, staying to cast her ballot before going on to the hospital.
The biometric voter identification problem was compounded on Monday night, when the electronic results transmission system (ERT) experienced what IEBC CEO James Oswago described as a “glitch.” Oswago explained that at one point in the evening, the server experienced an error related to insufficient space to accommodate incoming results. The error was corrected, and results again began streaming in.
The electronic results transmission system is, in fact, one of the most critical aspects of this election. In 2007, it was precisely the lack of transparency around results from critical constituencies that sparked widespread unrest. The new electronic system, which allows polling center agents to transmit results to the IEBC via mobile phones, is supposed to be fool-proof. Testing of the system in the days leading up to this election, however, revealed problems. In one test, the system failed in four out of five mock polling centers. Similar deficiencies were seen during the national simulation of the election.
Given the context of the last election, in which the lack of transparency around results transmission from certain key constituencies sparked massive unrest and violence, the new, allegedly fool-proof electronic system is especially critical. Both the IEBC and the Kenyan government recognized the importance of a more reliable system early on in the election preparation process. In fact, when the IEBC cancelled its original tender for the biometric voter registration kits, the government stepped into assist with their procurement.
In response to the failure of the biometric voter identification system, many polling centers resorted to using the manual register. While this is a good back-up system, complete reliance on it opens up avenues of manipulation, especially since not all polling station officers are required to be from outside the area in which the polling station is located. This increases system vulnerability, especially in party stronghold areas, where there is more likelihood of community pressure bearing down on polling agents to make sure the a particular candidate’s “home turf” shows its support in the way of overwhelming support. So much is about perception, and the use of the manual register can only go so far in assuring the public that there are checks on those who may be inclined to sway things in a particular direction. It is not hard to see that this may also risk decreasing public confidence in the integrity of the system.
The IEBC is now worryingly silent. In the two IEBC briefings held since the occurrence of the “glitch” in the results transmission system, little information has been provided. While the error might have been resolved, political parties are already on guard. The Orange Democratic Party (ODM), led by incumbent Prime Minister Raila Odinga, has already expressed its fears, explaining that the server was down for six hours.
Questions from the press and public were not taken in either briefing. Were all the results that were unable to be processed during the time the server was down eventually uploaded? Are the results being streamed now reflective of those results?
It is worth questioning why, thirteen hours after polls officially closed, the IEBC is only showing results from about 30 percent of all polling stations. It is true, of course, that there were still extremely long lines when polls closed, and centers had to accommodate all those waiting. Still, even with the assumption that some polls only closed at midnight (7 hours after the official end of polling at 5:00pm), it seems reasonable that by 8:00am (8 hours later) more than 30 percent of all stations would have finished counting presidential results. The slow pace of the incoming results combined with the “glitch” in the results transmission system leave room to wonder whether the transmission system is fully functional. Are returning officers now unable to use the ERT? If so, how are they transmitting the provisional results?
It is only fair that the IEBC informs Kenyans of what to expect, including possible mishaps and delays. This will lead to an understanding that some mistakes are to be expected and do not spell an irrevocably flawed election. Given the context of the last election, which is fresh in everyone’s minds in the current post-polling environment, clear communication from the IEBC is vital to maintaining public confidence in the system.