Biometric technologies have become pervasive in elections on the African continent. Biometrics—the use of bodily characteristics such as fingerprints or iris scans to identify people—enables transitioning democracies to empower constituencies through more protected elections which builds resilience against violence and fraud, achieves transparency through near real time election results monitoring and increases overall election integrity and credibility as observed by both domestic and international audiences. Used for more than a decade, it has been employed during elections in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal and Somaliland, and is planned for elections in Tanzania in 2015 and Uganda in 2016. It is also employed in verifying national identity in Senegal, Mauritania and Nigeria. While biometrics does not guarantee free and fair elections, it seems to have become an apparently valuable tool in executing free, fair and transparent elections.
Biometric-enabled technologies are employed to eliminate duplicate voter registries, create a permanent electronic register, and positively identify voters on election day. With elections now dominating the continent as the peaceful mechanism for transition of power, but politically motivated violence still occurring in 60% of elections; biometrics is a tool employed to reduce this risk of violence by making the process more transparent and credible.
Additionally, the technology is perceived to fill a lack of state capacity in systems of identification and surveillance—like tax and social welfare systems—mostly absent in Africa. So biometrics potentially realizes greater capabilities to states beyond election day with the technologies’ ability to identify constituencies and citizens in need of public services. On election day, some believe “credible elections begin with credible voter registration.” Biometrics can also preclude poll manipulation and strengthen electoral management. When it works well, biometrics can reduce the duration of voting-to-election results, whereby the media and civil society groups can monitor and immediately disseminate election results via websites, as was the case in Sierra Leone, where Salonevotes.com provided live results as they were released. It can prevent over-voting, as was the case in the DRC where elections in 2011 were marked with impossibly high turnouts. And it can also prevent electoral deadlocks, as happened in the 2010 Cote d’Ivoire elections where conflicting election results were declared by the Independent Electoral Commission and the Constitutional Court. This advantage is not to be understated. Challenging elections occurs frequently by opposition candidates in Africa. The end of 2012 saw Sierra Leone and Ghana incumbents winning handily with opposition parties contesting the outcome and questioning the credibility of the elections. Swift dispute resolution is critical to maintaining stability and biometrics can prevent and/or provide quick adjudication to election result challenges.
While there are advantages to biometric-enabled elections, it is certainly not a panacea. Biometrics may solve some forms of voter fraud like over-voting and ballot stuffing, but voter intimidation practices, bribes, neopatrimonialism, and poll manipulation persists. It did not stop voter intimidation pervasive in Sierra Leone during the national elections in 2012. Further, biometrics is susceptible to technology break downs, system shortfalls—false positives/negatives, staffing skill failures, failures in staff training, voter anxiety, poor registration turnouts, and environmental and geographic challenges. Biometrics equipment can fail to recognize biometric identities, have transmission issues in uploading data collected, have supporting server issues, and other technical issues all potentially delaying registration or voting—as was the case in Kenya and Ghana’s elections last year. The equipment also depends on a power source, often absent in remote areas of Africa; so when batteries run out, so too does biometric-enabled elections—as happened in Kenya’s 2013 elections where only 23% of the country has access to electricity. And when evaluating election processes and outcomes, biometrics was not able to ensure the DRC’s elections were free or fair, the technical issues in Nigeria and Somaliland have organizers reverting subsequent elections to manual methods, and the political anxiety the high-tech failures in Kenya undermined election credibility and raised the likelihood for political violence.
So what is the cost? Properly executing biometrics-enabled elections requires well trained human capital, expensive high-tech resources, comprehensive planning and perfectly executed deployment. In the DRC the elections cost $360 million with biometrics requiring $58 million dollars. In Ghana, biometrics was over 60% of the election costs at $76 million for the technology. And in Kenya it was 1/3 of the cost of elections, for a total of $100 million dollars spent on biometrics—about $20 per person in a country where 67% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Is it the most efficient use of resources? And what about the costly maintenance of equipment upgrades—estimated to be $2.5 million for the DRC. The systems also incur a national dependence on international vendors and foreign technical assistants, and additional national budget requirements to gain and maintain personnel staff for IT proficiency. Are there simpler, inexpensive, and more effective methods to prevent fraud in African elections? Just look to the top of this blog post for the answer.
Foreign aid focused on good governance and democratization prioritizes elections above all. These technologies are extracting a high proportion of global democratization aid; aid for systems that have largely failed to deliver, have not accomplished rigorous cost-benefit analyses, and ironically are considered to be unnecessary to support the modern democracies of donor countries. This money may well be better spent on strengthening the independence and professionalism of the electoral management body, the salaries of a properly sized electoral commission staff, training of election support personnel, and parliamentary training and foreign assistance to support electoral system reform. A reevaluation of the capabilities and capacities purchased with democracy assistance is needed to promote sustainable elections and strengthen the conditions supportive of democracy in Africa.