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Kenya’s high-tech fiasco

By Alan Ssempebwa

How the electoral commission messed up the vote count

Ever wondered what happened to your ballot after you dropped it into a ballot box at an election? To paraphrase Joseph Stalin, it’s not the people who vote that count; it’s the people who count the votes. Stalin may not be the best voice on elections but his point remains poignant, particularly in the March 4 general elections in Kenya.

The trust between the enfranchised and those responsible for making counting is of great significance. They must make sure that everyone gets an equally weighted vote, and the right to have one’s vote accurately counted.  Any accusations of doctored results or vote rigging need to be taken with the upmost seriousness.

The Kenyan election has been a success in that we have not seen the horrific scenes of 2007, but it is somewhat tarnished by Raila Odinga, who finished second with 43.3%, contesting the results.

The most dubious issue with the election was the length of time it took for them to count the votes. This was partly due to equipment failure, incompetent recording of spoilt ballots but mainly issues to do with the Results Transmission System (RTS) technology.

The election had been dubbed the ‘most high-tech in Africa’ but the reality on Election Day and the five-days of waiting for results was shambolic.

Laptop computers that should have been running the vote count run out of battery in some polling centres with no power sources to charge them, the mobile phones to be used to deliver SMS results were delivered late, presiding officers could not log onto the system.  A plethora of errors in the elections coordination left them unprepared to facilitate the event.

‘Democracy on Trial’

Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner with over 50% +1 of the vote crossing the stringent threshold required to win an election under the new constitution introduced in 2010. Odinga has refused to concede defeat and delivered a speech called ‘Democracy on Trial’. For the sake of peace, he said, he was encouraging his supporters to remain calm.

He told crowds: “Nothing would have pleased me more if I had lost fairly. But I have a duty and responsibility to protect democracy in this country. The struggle for democracy has been very long and we are not going to surrender it to the forces of darkness.”

Understanding the dynamics around the two main candidates is an important factor in understanding the election. This is not simply to recognise that they represented two of the biggest ethnic groups in Kenya; the Kikuyu and Luo, and so were destined for a tight finish.

It must also be acknowledge that Odinga was the incumbent Prime Minister and two-time loser, and appeared to be the favourite to win and favoured by the international community.

He was up against his deputy Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s first President after independence and one of the nation’s wealthiest residents with friends in high places had a looming visit to the International Criminal Court (ICC) over his role in the 2007 post-election violence in which thousands were killed.

One was a complacent favourite taking his popularity for granted and the other a resilient less likely to win front-runner.

This dichotomy, which characterised most of the build up to the election, was continued after it with the ‘Democracy on trial’ vs. ‘triumph of democracy’ narratives.

With the stakes so high, it is unclear why so many irregularities were allowed to mar the ballot. Did Kenyatta really have a hand in rigging the results? How can other countries in the region and the continent that have for long looked at the evolution of democracy in Kenya with admiration avoid such a drawn out count and electoral commission fumbling happening again in their countries?

IECB’s incompetence

Crucially in this election the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IECB) introduced a mechanised voting system that was supposed to improve Kenya’s efficiency and reliability of their ballot counting.

The results were shambolic. The glitches began on the first day and Odinga listed them.

“What Kenyans witnessed,” he said, “was the failure of virtually every instrument the IEBC had deployed for the election.”

Odinga listed them: “The poll books, the servers, the telephonic transmission, the BVR (Biometric Voter Registration) – they all failed despite the billions spent on acquiring them.”

The whole process slowed down as the technology that was supposed to electronically transmit information by server to the Bomas tallying centre failed.

Two days after the poll the electronic Result Transmission System (RTS) was abandoned and a manual count began.

By day three, Odinga and his running mate Kalonzo Musyoka were calling for the vote counting to be stopped. They said the results were “tampered with” and they would not accept them.

As Odinga said in his rejection speech on Day-six; “Voter registration numbers were reduced in our strongholds and added to Jubilee strongholds.” He mentioned Ndhiwa and Laikipia North as constituencies where discrepancies occurred.

Ahmed Issack Hassan, Chairman of the IECB, denied allegations and accepted the results of the recount. He dismissed the Odinga camp’s accusation that there were places where votes exceeded registered votes.

“There’s no room to doctor the results whatsoever, by any election official,” he said.

But even he admitted there had been a ‘bug’ multiplying the number of spoiled ballots by a factor of eight. This bug has caused suspicion. How was it developed in-house, and managed only to target the invalid votes and none of the votes of the candidates?

Odinga doubts the glitches were just mere ‘glitches’ and the IECB still dismisses claims of tampering. Among election results transmission experts, however, such systems failures occurring at the back-end are nothing unusual. A deeper look into the issue of tech failure sheds some light on the cause of disruption.

How the system failed

It appears there was less system failure in the Kenya election and more human error.

The high-tech system that was procured was a Results Transmission System (RTS). This means that results were supposed to be relayed on servers that operated in a dedicated closed system between constituencies, counties and on a national level.

Based on the terms of reference to the provider by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), the RTS was supposed to work by “each polling centre reporting the provisional results of six (6) elections to transmit these results to three (3) different Tally Centres across the country. The solution should fully automate the process as required to address the complexity of the expanded scope of multiple elections.” This was revealed in the request for proposal document for the procurement of the system.

Having tallied the votes in a polling centre, the presiding officer was supposed to send the information via mobile device onto the servers. Once securely transmitted, it would be accessed by the IECB for consolidation and publication. Paper ballots would be transmitted to tally centres for the same consolidating then sent on the IECB serves.

All the while the results would be projected in graphs that updated in real-time. This system authenticated itself and operated only with the authorised devices. The final stage would see these results confirmed through live feed. All of this would be done in a secured closed system to prevent outside interference like hacking.

In order for this system to operate sufficiently, it was to be designed to handle the data and capacity of information passing through its system on Election Day. This means that it would be able to handle information coming in from the 33000 polling stations and more.

Members of the team that worked on the RTS system revealed online the inner workings of the system and how it failed.

The root cause of the disruptions was that one of the servers ran out capacity as space reserved for the data was in the wrong area. The few returning officers who managed to send the information through did on different servers. This then led to the server slowing down and eventually being abandoned all together.

Other issues that have been cited include disorganised delivery of phones, presiding officers not logged into the system and late delivery of the visualizing software. This left the coordination unprepared to facilitate an election.

It is baffling to imagine that a simple problem, disk space, led the whole system to crumble. Surely such errors should either have been accommodated if not eliminated. The software is not to blame for incompetence, the people handling it are.

Beyond reasonable doubt?

What happens behind the curtains when the votes are being tallied is somewhat esoteric. With up to six elections taking place in one go and 86% turnout, the counting process was always going to be difficult. But it has emerged that the IEBC was badly unprepared for these possibilities. Late procurement of the RTS, barely two months to the election, has been blamed. But that cannot fully explain why even laptops were said to be running out of battery with no power sources to charge them on Election Day.

Up to 22,000 international observers were in Kenya but their value to the election process remains unclear. None the less they reported the election as being transparent and well-conducted, contrary to the suspicion pointed out by the Odinga camp and the hopeless IT systems. ‘As soon as practicable’ was an alien concept at this election. From the deliver of the equipment to revealing the results, the pace was slow and unsteady.

* Source of some of the information in this piece: IEBC Tech Kenya and International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

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