DR Congo’s risky bet on digital democracy
Democratic Republic of Congo is preparing for Africa’s biggest experiment in digital democracy: an election in which millions of people who have never used computers will be asked to vote on electronic tablets in polling stations hundreds of miles from the nearest plug socket. The country’s electoral commission says the machines will improve the speed of the vote count and cut costs. Diplomats, opposition leaders and analysts warn the new system — untested in Congo — could derail one of the most important presidential elections in the nation’s history. “This is one huge gamble,” said a diplomat in the capital Kinshasa. “If something goes wrong, millions of voters could be disenfranchised.” Opposition candidate Martin Fayulu, who is challenging Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary — President Joseph Kabila’s chosen successor — has called the tablets “cheating machines”. Four weeks from voting day he is still insisting that the electoral commission withdraws the machines and reverts to a paper ballot.
Moves towards electronic voting have become controversial around the world in an era of digital malfeasance and organised hacking. Argentina planned to use voting machines in 2017 but changes to the country’s electoral law failed to pass the Senate. Australia has toyed with the technology but it is not used in federal votes. In the US, the world’s richest democracy, there are growing doubts about the wisdom of e-voting.
“In the US, with all the transparency, with all the good intent, with the hundreds of years of experience with the electoral process, it is still a problem,” said Mvemba Dizolele, a Congolese lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “In the case of DRC, it just doesn’t make sense.” It will be only the second time that an African government has used an electronic voting system in a national vote and the first in an election of this scale. Namibia used electronic voting in its general election in November 2014 but only after trialling its machines in three local polls and one by-election earlier in the year. About 890,000 citizens voted in the poll using 2,080 voting machines. In contrast, Congo has more than 46m registered voters and will roll out the system for the first time on December 23.
The electoral commission has procured more than 105,000 voting machines and plans to deploy them in more than 20,000 polling centres, across a country 10 times bigger than the UK. Each centre will only have one spare device in case of a malfunction. The battery-powered tablets will have to be charged and transported to the polling centres in the next four weeks. If the batteries run flat, recharging could be challenging in a country where only 9 per cent of households have access to power. Congo has conducted very limited civic training so almost every voter in the country will be using the tablets for the first time.
Presidential, parliamentary and local elections are taking place simultaneously so voters will need to make three choices on the tablet. Depending on voter turnout the electoral commission estimates each person will have approximately 1 minute to vote. At the UK-based Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which reviewed the devices, the fastest time that a technical team in a controlled environment was able to complete the process was 50 seconds. The machine then prints the selection, which is placed by the voter in a ballot box. Afterwards, the ballot papers will be counted manually and the tally verified against the digital result stored by the system. Mr Fayulu says the machines, which were acquired from South Korean manufacturer Miru Systems over the past 18 months without a public tender, have not been sufficiently tested and could be used to manipulate the result.
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