By Rosebell Kagumire
Uganda could attain an electronic system to handle voter registration and voting ahead of 2011 presidential and parliamentary elections but only if government and the Electoral Commission (EC) will give it a chance.
The proposal to supply about 20,000 both battery and solar-powered biometric voting machines by a South Africa-based group of Ugandans has excited the opposition even as the electoral body denies knowledge about the idea.
A group of Ugandans living in South Africa under a civic organisation, Uganda Civil Alliance Network (UCAN), have offered to supply the voting machines for 2011 general elections.
In a letter to the EC Chairman, Dr Badru Kiggundu, the UCAN Secretary General Dr T. Drabile said they would buy the machines and supply them free of charge after getting a go-ahead from the electoral body.â€œWe note that the Electoral Commission met challenges and problems which, if not rectified will lead to disenfranchisement of voters, consequently [causing] voter apathy. It is important to provide a remedy in form of voter registration/voting finger identification machines in preparation for the 2011 general elections,â€ UCANâ€™s letter to EC reads in part.
However EC Secretary General Sam Rwakoojo told The Independent that they had not received UCANâ€™s proposal, but added; â€œany offer that is useful and usable will be welcome. We would take anything that we can use to carry out effective elections and we should have no problem with the proposal even more that it is free.â€
In the last three presidential elections, there have been reports of voter disenfranchisement, multiple voting and irregularities in tallying of results from all over the country. The bio-metric voting gadgets are intended to cure the aforementioned bottlenecks to free and fair elections in the country.Â Â
How does the machine work?
According to UCAN, the biometric voting machine can be used as early as the voter registration stage. During the exercise, a person eligible to vote provides his/her fingerprint, bio-data and address to the registering officers who feed that information into the machine. Then the information is uploaded automatically onto the EC central server through a cell network or satellite, meaning that a voterâ€™s bio-data can be retrieved at any electoral centre in the country. Oneâ€™s fingerprint becomes the key identifier.
During voting, a voter just places his/her finger on the machine pad and the device prints his/her details, registration number at the polling station and the serial number of the polling station. It is this printout that is stuck to the ballot paper to confirm that one has voted and no more stickers can be printed out once one has voted which prevents any double voting.
However this doesnâ€™t mean the ballot boxes will be abandoned. After one ticks their candidate, the serial number and number of people who have received printouts are electronically transferred to the EC main centre.
For instance if 100 people voted at the station, the tally will be 100 and the printed sticker trail is retrievable in the machine memory. In the last election in 2006, there were 19,788 polling stations in the country. The UCAN group believes the 20,000 biometric voter registration and voting machines will be more than enough for the election in 2011.
The machines have been widely used in India and Venezuelan elections. â€œThis groupâ€™s proposal to supply free voting machines is the best idea. We have been looking at this and actually went to find quotations in India,â€ said Wafula Oguttu, the FDC party spokesman.
However Oguttu said that greed for money in procurement of voting equipment by EC may be a sufficient motivation for EC to frustrate the proposal of biometric voting gadgets.â€œThe EC is not really keen on that and I suspect that it has to do with a lot of funds that are attached to procuring the various election materials that the EC has been using. The money that goes into buying ink, basins, boxes etc is a lot. If some people have benefited from this, they might find the new change less expensive and therefore less funds at their disposal,â€ he said.
The head of the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) Jaberi Bidandi Sali told The Independent: â€œThe initiative is in good faith and we hope that the organisers particularly government will take this step into account.â€
But he was quick to warn that the computerisation of the voting process alone might not be the cure to voting rigging.â€œMost of what has been going on is not because of lack of such a computerised system but rather lack of good faith on the part of government to deliver free and fair elections.â€
Elections in Uganda especially in 2001 and 2006 have provoked a lot of public outcry over irregularities which court confirmed on both occasions. In the 2006 ruling, the EC failed to provide court with reports from returning officers of areas whose results were being disputed. This suggested that the whole reporting process of election results was flouted and flawed.
Â The EC Commissioner for Central North region Tom Buruku told The Independent that they had discussed the issue of using fingerprints in voting but the idea could not be executed due to constraints.â€œMany in the EC wanted it to be introduced even before the 2006 elections. But there were concerns of time and funds so it couldnâ€™t be brought on board,â€ he said.
Buruku said the use of fingerprints is good and â€œthe most reliable way to ensure a transparent election.â€
The UCAN says that if the biometric voting is allowed, it will invest in this unique technology to ensure that â€œno one party can manipulate the computers in order to affect the outcome of the vote.â€ UCAN have also put their proposal before different political players including opposition parties, religious leaders, traditional leaders and the East African parliament.
This intervention to mitigate election irregularities and improve on methods of ascertaining results is critical for achieving a free and fair election for the first time in decades.