Nigeria’s long wait for the infusion of far-reaching changes that will radically reform her dated electoral process will have to be further delayed after the House of Representatives recently turned down the bid for the adoption of electronic system of voting in next year’s elections. While taking a second look at the Electoral Act (Amendment) Bill 2018, the assent to which was withheld by President Muhammadu Buhari, the lawmakers held that only the tokenistic reform so far undertaken by the Independent National Electoral Commission would be accommodated in the statute. This essentially involved the use of Smart Card Reader machine and Permanent Voter Cards for the conduct of elections.
This is indeed a setback and represents a failure of the current INEC boss, Mahmood Yakubu, to build on the foundation laid by the Attahiru Jega-led INEC that superintended the landmark elections that culminated in the defeat of an incumbent president in Nigeria for the first time in 2015. The House of Representatives’ action is a vote against modernity; it is a vote against transparency in the electoral process, which also goes against the current trend in which some few African countries have been able to make a bold bid to introduce e-voting in their elections.
After the introduction of the PVC and SCR in 2015, the incidence of multiple registration leading to the inflation of voter register witnessed a drastic reduction. It was also possible to put a stop to unregistered voters taking part in the polls by making use of other people’s voter cards. In the main, in places where these technological innovations were put to use, there was a considerable reduction in the quantum of rigging and cases of ballot box snatching, which have continually hallmarked elections in this part of the world.
However, while the contributions of the PVC and SCR in improving the quality of elections cannot be underestimated, it should also not be the ultimate aspiration of Nigerians as far as innovative approach to the election of government officials is concerned. It must be acknowledged that much more could be achieved with the full-scale introduction of e-voting. No innovative steps should be considered too small in improving the quality of the process that produces the people’s representatives in an atmosphere of a free and fair election.
It is unthinkable that, up till now, elections in the country are made to look cumbersome to the extent that the electorate sometimes prefer to sit out the process. Aside from undue exposure to violence, there is also the inconvenience of a restriction on movement imposed on everybody, which translates into incalculable loss in man-hours. Rather, exercising such civic duty should be with minimum discomfort, which is where e-voting comes in.
In places where it is in use, e-voting ensures that polling takes place while people still go about their normal daily business. And, with minimal involvement of physical human contact in the process, there is much more room for transparency and less likelihood of interference. E-voting also saves cost by eliminating the huge personnel involvement and the sheer enormity of the paperwork that needs to be handled. Needless to say, because it is less stressful, it boosts voter turnout, thus increasing the credibility of the process and its outcome. The incidence of carting away ballot papers is eliminated by the electronic system of voting.
This is not to say that it does not have its shortcomings, which includes, but is not limited to, hacking, as was experienced during the last United States presidential election. But with much care and diligence, hacking could always be prevented. For instance, the Americans are still investigating the incident with a view to preventing a reoccurrence in the future. It has not been considered enough reason to capitulate and abandon the process.
The argument has always been that the country is not ready for e-voting because people from a section are educationally backward and would therefore be disenfranchised. This was the argument way back in the Second Republic and remains the argument today. The question then arises, when will these people ever be ready to overcome their educational handicap? Or will the country be held down perpetually because of a section of the country that is not even recording any recognisable milestone in improving it educational level?
Some people also argue that the infrastructure, such as electricity and internet penetration, is not reliable enough to embark on e-voting at this time. However, the decision to adopt e-voting could be taken while efforts are on to improve the level of infrastructure. There is nothing wrong, for instance, in adopting solar-powered machines in places where reliance on grid-powered electricity cannot be guaranteed.
It is important for citizens to have faith in elections. Therefore, a technology-driven electoral process with its accuracy, reliability and transparency is gaining currency all over the world. We should not be left behind. Most of the systems used in other countries are computer based with internet connectivity. Hence, these could be vulnerable to hacking. But INEC has much to learn from India, where the system works. India’s Electronic Voting Machines are fundamentally different from the voting machines and processes adopted in other countries. Experts advise that every piece of software must be scrutinised by neutral experts. Electronic voting machines must produce a voter-verifiable paper trail for each vote so voters can see that their choices register properly. In a disputed election, the paper, not the machine tallies, should decide who wins.
If handled expertly, the use of technology in elections could help to guarantee accuracy in results, in a country where people are ready to go to great lengths to tamper with election results because of the lucrative nature of political office. In Canada, which is a federation, some parts of the country employ e-voting while others prefer manual. So, the concept can be experimented in some parts of Nigeria, and then gradually introduced in other parts. Casting the idea of e-voting aside should not be the only option open to the country, especially now that making the people’s vote count is becoming ever more imperative.
In Somaliland, a breakaway country from Somalia that is still seeking international recognition, e-voting has been introduced. Interestingly, what has driven the country into embracing technology in elections is the desire to avoid the usual problem of multiple voting; this led to their adoption of the iris recognition system. It is also important to note that technology played a prominent role in Kenya’s last presidential election. Although it was not without some hiccups, they were able to pull it off. Nigeria has to take the plunge and work towards perfection with time.