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Who is scared of electronic voting?

By Wanyama Wangah

If you are a depositor with Pride Microfinance, banking just got a lot easier today.

Once you walk into their banking hall, you join a queue (if there is any) or just walk up to the cashier without filling any slips. At the cashier’s counter, you are shown a pad where you place your thumb. Your details then come up on a screen and the cashier asks if you want to make a deposit or a withdrawal. If it is a deposit, you pass over the money, which is counted and entered into your account. You are then given a computer generated slip to verify the transaction which you sign and off you go with one copy.

The slip contains your last five transactions and the current balance on your account. That’s called biometric data base. For a second year in a row, students at the Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU) voted for their Guild representatives electronically. A student walked up to a voting centre, presented his ID and is given a secret code. He then walks to a computer terminal, enters his code and the list of candidates appear. He clicks on his choice and his vote is recorded. The system was designed by an IT student at the university, Jude Emmanuel Mpiangu.

Pride Microfinance and IUIU are small institutions. But then it has been done on very large scale too, in India. Considered the world’s largest democracy, its numbers are mind-boggling. Over 4,617 candidates; over 300 parties; 543 seats being contested in the Lok Sabha (parliament); over 828,800 polling stations; with over 700 million eligible voters. Yet India successfully used electronic voting machines in 2004 general elections and is doing so again this year.

In fact the process was so successful that a host of countries have lined up orders for the machines and sent teams to study the system. Among those making arrangements to buy India electronic voter machines are Australia, Mauritius, Malaysia, Singapore, Namibia, South Africa and Sri Lanka, the Indo-Asian News Service reported. Why is Uganda not on this list?

Singapore, for example, wants some modifications done to the machines so that they can also handle voter identification and verification. India’s electronic voter machines have attracted more attention because they are better suited for developing countries.

Other countries like in Europe and the US use Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machine, where all a voter needs to do is walk to a polling station and key in a candidate of choice on a touch screen terminal. Under this system, poll is transmitted over a network to national election headquarters where a master computer automatically runs the tallying.

This system is susceptible to failure and in rare cases manipulation. The level of trust is also low because the votes are tallied at centres not accessible to any candidates. And in East Africa we all know what happens at tallying centres.

The Indian system on the other hand uses stand alone units.

All procedures during the polling process, from the pressing of a button to the counting of votes, can be recorded in the machine and stored for up to five years.

The machines are highly cost effective as they reduce the huge costs of transport, security of ballot boxes, printing of thousands of tonnes of ballot paper and hiring of counting staff.

The machines are also easy to operate, deliver instantaneous results and the manufacturers claim they are tamperproof.

In fact one of the commissioners at the Indian Electoral Commission, Mr Shahubiddin Yakub Quraishi, told BBC in an interview on April 4, that they had dipped one of the machines in water for 15 minutes, and then hacked it with an axe. But after that the technicians removed the chip and all the data was intact!

So if the technology is available for both a bio-metric (and almost paperless) voter register and electronic voting system why is Uganda’s electoral commission not showing any signs of adopting one?

The excuses of it can’t work should not arise, after all we have already seen how the manual system doesn’t deliver.

The excuse of a semi-literate population should not arise. India, with all its millions of degree holders, still has millions of illiterate voters. And they voted in 2004 and will vote again this year. Pictures of the Indian voter machines show that whoever can use a ballot paper can also use the machines, they look so much alike.

The excuse of cost should not arise, the electronic system in cheaper by miles.

So, is it transparency we are scared off?

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