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Opinions of Friday, 10 February 2017

Columnist: Graphic.com.gh

Is E-voting possible in Ghana?

By: Kwami Ahiabenu

An election is an important bedrock for any democracy. As the concept of democracy evolves, new technologies and mechanism are being introduced to ensure effective and efficient running of elections worldwide.

One such new development is e-voting which can be defined as an elections system that enables a voter to record his or her confidential and secure ballot via electronic means. There are a number of e-voting technologies such as Direct Electronic Recording (DER), punch-card voting systems, touch screens or optical scanners or voting over the internet.

Though not an e-Voting system in the sense of it, the Voter-Verified Paper audit trail (VVPAT) or Verified Paper Record (VPR) also provides a mechanism for independent verification of votes, detection of election fraud and also a means to undertake auditing of stored electronic results.

According to aceproject.org, there are currently nine countries implementing one form or the other of e-voting systems, including the USA, Switzerland, Norway, India, Germany, Estonia, Canada, Brazil and The Netherlands.

In 2005, Estonia became the first country in the world to hold nationwide e-voting. According to e-estonia.com Internet voting, or ‘i-voting’, is a voting mechanism, which enables voters to cast their ballots using internet-connected devices, anywhere in the world, with no need to visit a physical voting booth.

Using ID cards, the voter logs anonymously onto the system to vote during a designated voting period. Though a voter can vote as many times as she or he wants, each new vote cancels the last which means they can change their vote during the voting window.

It is important to note that Estonia is a small country with a population of 1.325 million people as of 2013, so its example should be viewed in this context.

Opportunities and prospects of e-voting

Proponents of e-voting suggest that e-voting can reduce the huge cost of elections, especially in poorer nations. Ghana’s 2016 election is estimated to cost GH¢1.2 billion, according to the Electoral Commission (EC).

E-voting saves costs on voting materials, saves turn-around time on vote counting and ultimately produces a timely announcement of final election results. E-voting also provides unique opportunities for persons with disability to independently cast their ballots in secrecy.

The widespread diffusion of mobile phones means e-voting, powered by mobile technology, will increase the likelihood of higher turnout since more people are able to vote remotely and subsequently increase civic participation in the democratic space.

Challenges of e-voting

Ghana is not currently set up for a fully functional e-voting system. To begin with, access to new digital technologies such as the Internet, reliable telephone services and even basic electricity, is problematic and all these will make it impossible to derive the advantages of an e-voting-based electoral system.

In our context, the fact is, e-voting will disfranchise a large number of voters since they do not have access to new digital technologies nor digital literacy to enable them to participate effectively in the process.

Furthermore, e-voting does not have a paper trail, which provides physical evidence or backup records required for recounts or disputes arising from post elections. Invariably, without such paper trails, a public recount is extremely difficult or nearly impossible. Also, e-voting suffers the risks of vote manipulation, hacking by a country or group which can change the outcome of an election.

Badly designed systems or poorly written software could impact negatively on the outcome of election results in a heavily dependent electronic voting context. Furthermore, a cyber attack on an electronic voting system is a significant cause of worry in terms of its vulnerability.

Every system does have its share of errors, in some electronic environments, detection and identification of such errors and malfunctions are relatively difficult in comparison to the traditional paper-based ballot system.

At the end of the day, voting systems must provide reasonable evidence that votes cast at the ballot box contributes to the selection of a winner thereby convincing losers they have lost fairly. An electronic voting system does not presently provide that level of confidence backed by tangible evidence of a paper trail.

Conclusion

As Ghana consolidates its democracy by holding free, fair and transparent elections, new digital technologies are going to play a very critical role. In this direction, the EC of Ghana should invest in understanding and even experiment with some of these new tools and ideas, especially during district level elections.

Lessons learnt can be translated gradually and implemented at national level elections over time. As a country, we have a long way to go in implementing e-voting in its totality and catching up with the rest of the democratic world; it will not hurt to accelerate usage of new digital technologies.