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Kenya Elections: Manual vs Digital Registers Debate

By Walubengo John.

We had this debate five years ago in 2017 and the protagonists took different sides. Thanks to the short memories of Kenyans, politicians can without blinking an eye take different positions depending on the day’s weather – without expecting to be challenged to explain why they changed their previous positions.

In the runup to the 2017 general elections, NASA was steadfast in fighting for a heavily digitally driven election, while Jubilee ruthlessly marshalled parliamentary numbers to ensure that the Election Amendment Act of 2016 introduced the so-called ‘complementary’ system which was enacted into law.

Indeed a lot of teargas and limbs were expensed in the streets to suppress the then NASA demonstrators to ensure that these ‘complementary system’ of identifying voters in ways that are not necessarily digital prevailed.

Complimentary Systems.

And the ‘complementary system’ did prevail such that as we approached the 2017 election, we knew that IEBC had three options of identifying voters, namely electronically through their biometric, fingerprint option, or fully manually through striking out the voter’s names on some manual register upon production of a national ID. The third option available was the semi-manually, commonly known as the alphanumeric method.

Fast forward to 2022 and we have an interesting case where sections of the 2017 Jubilee members (now in Kenya Kwanza) that fought hard to have the manual methods of voter identification, now supporting the digital methods. On the other hand, we have sections of the former 2017 NASA luminaries (now in Azimio) fighting hard to have manual methods of identification as part and parcel of our voter identification.

Ironically, the rationale pushed by Azimio for manual methods of identification is the same one used by their then Jubilee competitors in 2017 – that digital systems could fail. And rightly so, the digital systems do fail.

On the other hand, Kenya Kwanza seems to have adopted the former NASA position, which was that when digital systems fail, they should and can be replaced by another additional layer of digital (rather than manual) systems.

Digital backups.

IEBC has tried to adopt this latter position by providing multiple layers of digital redundancy – including having extra Electronic Voter ID (EVID) kits per constituency and having extra backup power storage for the kits amongst other complimentary options. But that has not resolved the issue of failure of the tech platform and Azimio is not convinced.

Azimio has argued that these digital backups will not cure the case of voters who have lost their fingerprints for one reason or the other. IEBC has countered with the third option called the alphanumeric method where these types of voters produce IDs and a digital search on the EVID is then done to verify such voters, who are then allowed to proceed and vote.

IEBC argues they would not require nor need a manual register at each of the polling stations. But, this has not quelled the quest to have manual registers. So what exactly is going on here? Is it possible that manual register does provide some form of advantage to some of the competitors?

Manual register vulnerabilities.

IEBC has rightly argued that manual registers are more vulnerable to mischief, compared to the digital versions. Specifically, voters who failed to turn up to vote can easily be ‘made to vote’ – given the lack of digital controls that would have otherwise left an enriched audit trail that is inevitable when digital systems of voter identification are used.

Digital audit trails provide automatic evidence and better integrity in terms of who indeed showed up at the polling station (fingerprint records); what time they showed up and voted (records voters who vote at midnite raising eyebrows) as well as which polling officials cleared them to vote. For the manual option, all these ‘meta’ data is not automatically generated, exposing the process to all manner of vulnerabilities.

Whereas there is a court order forcing IEBC to ensure the manual voter registers are available at polling stations, it remains to be seen if at all they would be used on Aug 9th 2022

It is going to be a wait-and-see game for all interested parties.

John Walubengo is an ICT Lecturer and Consultant. @jwalu

This is a series of blogs about the 2022 Kenya Election. KICTANet has deployed 87 election tech observers covering 21 counties in Kenya.

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