The Independent National Electoral Commission of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (CENI) has appointed Washington based lobby group, Avenue Strategies, to pressure the US Administration into accepting the use of electronic voting machines in the upcoming general elections. This is despite widespread condemnation from opposition parties.
The question needs to be asked why CENI is paying Avenue Strategies US$19,000 a month to lobby for a technology that is untested, unreliable and opposed by almost everyone outside of the ruling party?
In a statement made by Jean-Pierre Kalamba, CENI’s rapporteur, he said, “It’s not a cheating machine but a machine to simplify and reduce costs. Without voting machines, there won’t be elections on December 23rd, 2018.” This is quite contrary to the opinions of Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, and Brennan Center’s Lawrence Norden, who both agree that the only way to ensure an accurate vote count with voting machines is to conduct post-election auditing by checking vote totals against paper records.
The problem with this kind of exercise is the exorbitant expense incurred when putting these auditing systems in place, and maintaining a separate, verifiable voter paper trail. In an interview on Wired.com Norden said, in reference to the American election, “The money’s not there right now. We interviewed election officials who told us what they were hearing from their state legislators and others who would be funding this type of equipment, and they say come back to us after there’s some kind of crisis.” The glaring truth behind this statement is, if the United States does not have the money to conduct post-election audits, where is the DRC going to get this type of funding?
It is, of course, unclear why a lobby group would be retained to promote the use of electronic voting machines when the United States has already categorically criticised their use. In a public statement, the US has said that voting machines could undermine the credibility of the polls. “These elections must be held by paper ballot so there is no question by the Congolese people about the result,” Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said on February 13th, 2018. “The US has no appetite to support an electronic voting system”, she said, adding that e-ballots had never been tested in the country.
Adding to the litany of problems surrounding the use of electronic voting machines, is the deployment of, at least 60 000 units across a country four times the size of France. Prior to this rollout over 600,000 electoral agents will be needed to help with preparations, including the drive to update the electoral roll.
To further drive the point home, the voting machine, imported from South Korea, broke down when demonstrated to a parliamentary commission. Committee member and parliamentarian, Toussaint Alonga, told Reuters. “If we have these problems in Kinshasa, what hope is there for the rest of the country?” Just over a month later, the machines malfunctioned for a second time during a presentation to two opposition parties which has led to many of the opposition parties rejecting the machines use.
Despite wide ranging scepticism and condemnation of the proposed methodology, the election commission is adamant that the election will not go ahead without the new technology. Incumbent President, Joseph Kabila’s opponents have raised concerns that using this untested technology will produce chaos and, almost certainly increase the risk of fraud and voting irregularities which have plagued previous elections.
Paul Tshilumbu, a spokesman for the opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) said in a statement that there were insurmountable problems associated with using the voting machines. “First of all, these machines have never been used in a major election, so we have no indication of how they will perform. Additionally, our power supply is unreliable with only 15% of the population having access to electricity. We also have no idea how the technology will stand up to the rigors of our climate where temperatures can soar, and humidity becomes stifling. We must also remember that people will be seeing this machine for the first time, and with almost a quarter of the population being illiterate, they are going to need assistance. There is no upside to using this technology, only potential threats.”
Pundits point to the use of voting machines in Kenya in 2013. Kenya has a far more advanced infrastructure but still had failures in voter identification technology in half the polling stations. In fact, concerns around electronic vote tallies led the Supreme Court ordering the presidential vote to be re-run.
“What the end game of CENI is can only be speculated upon but there seems to be common consensus in all other quarters that the use of this technology will make the general election a farce. If consent of the governed is the most fundamental concept of democracy, its most essential right is that of citizens to choose their leaders in free, fair, and transparent elections.
“The leadership of the UDPS therefore calls upon Mister Kabila to commit that the authority to govern shall be based on the will of the people as expressed in genuine elections. By acknowledging that CENI’s electronic voting technology is unprincipled and flawed, Mister Kabila will be endorsing the fundamental principles of free and fair elections.
“We further call on Mister Kabila and his party to respect that opposition institutions are needed in democracy, to respect the Congolese nation’s human rights to democratic voting processes, and to value the freedom of the press. The UDPS urges him to embrace his leadership responsibility to promote tolerance of diversity and a growing opposition, informed citizenry, respect for human rights and the rule of law.
“It is only when democracy prevails that the Democratic Republic of the Congo will be restored to its former glory and that it is again looked upon as one of the leading and respected nations on the African continent,” concludes Felix Tshisekedi, President of the UDPS and 2018 DRC presidential candidate.