Democratic societies are founded on the principles of elections and on opinion expression capabilities. Most sovereign nationalities are governed by pure democratic ideals where citizens express their rights through the conduct of an election in choosing a leader whom they believe their nation’s destiny can be entrusted with. Since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, elections have been marred with violence and irregularities; hence many have called for the introduction of an electronic voting system.
Electronic voting is simply defined as the use of computer technology in undertaking such activities as voter registration exercise, voting, vote counting and transmission of results. If properly implemented, e-voting solutions have the ability to eliminate certain common avenues of fraud, speed up the processing of results, increase accessibility and make voting more convenient for citizens, as well as reduce costs of elections in the long term.
The Cost of Elections
The total budgetary allocation the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) received from the federal government from 1999 to 2018 is N730.99bn of which N450bn was captured under electoral expenditure, N191.8bn as personnel cost, N36.9bn as overhead cost while N54.7bn as capital expenditure projects. The electoral expenditure rose from N1.5bn in 1999 to N29bn in 2002, N45.5bn in 2006 and N111bn in 2010 and dropped in 2014 as the figure spent stood at N87.8bn. However, the cost increased to N234 billion for the 2019 elections with N189.8 billion spent by INEC on the electoral process and the remaining N52.45bn expended on security agencies. The election budget was about 44 times higher than what the 36 federal universities spent on capital projects in 2018.
There is also the aspect of indirect cost. Due to the nature of our elections where public holidays are declared and businesses shut down for the duration of the elections, Nigeria loses over $ 1.1 billion. In addition, once there is a postponement as has occurred in the last two general elections, there is also the disruption cost, which is the cost of events and businesses that have to be moved due to clash of dates. This cost is put at three times the daily GDP cost. In order words, Nigeria lost almost $8 billion when all the stated costs in addition to the opportunity cost are summed up, during the just-concluded general elections. This clearly is not sustainable.
The Impediments to Electronic Voting
Currently, 26 countries conduct elections with one form of electronic voting or the other with some even allowing internet ballots for general elections. In 2014, Namibia became the first African country to conduct an e-voting election. Nigeria has had the desire to join the e-voting nations but has not been able to transform the desire into reality due to the self-imposed blockages. Paramount amongst these blockages is the electoral law. The current electoral act has been amended to include electronic voting but it has not been signed into law. Furthermore, it is silent on the ability of voters to vote anywhere they are regardless of where they registered to vote.
Poor ICT infrastructure as an inherent characteristic of Nigeria poses a serious challenge for e-voting adoption. This is owing to the fact that in developing countries like Nigeria, advanced technologies are often proposed without prerequisite complementary infrastructure. The decision to adopt certain systems should be reviewed to take account of the available infrastructure, in addition to issues of power and politics, literacy levels, culture and religion. Challenges confronting the adoption of e-voting technology include inadequate funding, low levels of indigenous IT specialists who have set up such systems, erratic electricity supply, the growing level of cybercrime, gender imbalance, and limited access to ICT.
Adequate provision of electricity is required to operate voting machines at polling units whereas internet connectivity is required for internet (i-voting). However, in Nigeria, power outage is a common phenomenon with about 80 million citizens without the supply of electricity or connection to the national grid. 83.6% of the urban population have access to electricity while only 39.1% of the rural population are connected. In addition, comprehensive biometric data for identification and monitoring of elections, a basic requisite for e-voting adoption, is lacking.
There is also the issue of education and trust in the system. According to The Global Findex Database 2017, only 40% of Nigerian adults have an account with a financial institution or a mobile money provider. The report which is the world’s most comprehensive dataset on how adults save, borrow, make payments, and manage risks, further revealed that Nigeria and six other countries contribute nearly half of the globe’s unbanked adult population of 1.7 billion, and 56% are women. There still lies a seeming mistrust for technology amongst a set of Nigerians due to certain myths. The fear of cybercrime that hinders many from opening bank accounts or using debit cards is the same when the e-voting system is mooted. Other impediments include:
- Apprehension by electorates over the motives behind the proposed e-voting system;
- Loss of trust and confidence in electoral officials;
- Low-level computer literacy and technology phobia amongst electorates;
- Capital intensive nature of e-voting project versus cost-effectiveness/value for money.
Meeting the SDGs through electronic voting
Nigeria has nearly 120,000 polling units cutting across the 774 local government areas in the 36 states. For e-voting to become a reality, the deployment of electronic voting machines has to be supported with both power and ICT infrastructure. According to the USAID Africa Power Project report of November 2018, the access rate to power stood at 45 per cent (Rural: 36% Urban: 55%), indicating access rate has fallen by 14 per cent in the last two years. Therefore, utilising off-grid solutions and generating more power is necessary for the success of the e-voting system. In relation to ICT, 40 million Nigerians are unreached due to the high cost of setting up telecommunications infrastructure. Africa is said to have close to 200,000 mobile towers with a deficit of 80,000. At an average of $200,000 each, the towers would cost $12 billion. Nigeria currently has about 30,000 mobile towers, with a shortfall of nearly 50,000 telecoms masts. By setting up the technological backbone of which the electronic voting machine would run, Nigeria would be solving its rural technology challenges whilst giving access to education, health services and banking solutions that would transform the inhabitants of those areas. Creating employment opportunities and improving education will also be one of the benefits of electronic voting.
According to the Electoral Council of Australia and New Zealand, there are 3 types of the e-voting system. These are:
- Kiosk voting: Access to the relevant web page is made available only at “internet kiosk” sites under the control of the Electoral Management Board.
- Mobile internet voting: Such access is made available away from such sites, but using systems managed and delivered by the EMB.
- Remote internet voting: In this system, voters access the web page for voting using any computer or device capable of being connected to the World Wide Web.
Therefore, regardless of the choice Nigeria makes, there would be a need for technical manpower to create, manage and maintain the system. In addition, the ICT curriculum would be revamped in order to meet the challenges faced by creating a system that works.
Finally, the e-voting system would aid Nigeria to finally get a database that is accurate and useful for developmental decisions by the government at all levels. For an electronic voting system to be effective, there needs to be a unique citizen number that has the full information of all citizens. In developed climes, it is referred to as the Social Security Number (SCN). Nigeria currently has the National Identity Number, however, just over 33 million Nigerians have registered – about 20% of the 180 million estimated population of the nation. The benefits of a coordinated National Digital Identity Ecosystem for a nation like Nigeria includes the following; driving financial inclusion, enhancing Inclusive economic growth, detecting fraud, tackling crime, improving national planning amongst others.
In conclusion, electronic voting will not exist in a vacuum. There is a need for collaboration between the government and the private sector in meeting the ancillary challenges that the e-voting system will thrive on. Companies that have invested in power, telecommunications and education should be supported with an enabling environment that sees the investments grow and reach the hinterlands of the country. Without a doubt, the success of the system is dependent on factors hindering the sustainable development of the nation, therefore, a holistic approach that takes into consideration the direct and indirect effects of implementing the e-voting system needs to be explored in order to change the narrative and meet set goals.
*Article written by ThistlePraxis Consulting