When voters cast their ballots in The Gambia on Saturday, they'll be using marbles, a technique put in place in 1947 that is used only in this West African country. However the tech-savvy Gambians will be also be following the vote count with a new smartphone app called, appropriately, Marble.
The combination of state-of-the-art vote count, practically in real time, was developed by the NGO Gambia Decides to ensure voters had the proper information in terms of the vote count, but also how to vote and what to expect at the polls, says Marr Nyang, founder and executive director of the group.
“We realised that access to information was a bottleneck – information was still accessible in the old way, where you have to see the candidate on tv from night until morning. We have a very erratic power supply, so when that goes out, you don't get to know what are the numbers actually coming in,” Nyang tells RFI.
Social media is another place voters can go, but he says it is hard to trust which sources are reliable. Marble is a non-partisan app, giving information on all candidates and vote counts throughout the country.
“We worked with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to get the information from the source and put it on the app, so the info is credible and reliable,” Nyang says.
This is the first presidential election they are covering, but the app, developed with Gambian company Assotech, was initially rolled out for local government elections in 2018.
The feedback received from voters, particularly those who are illiterate, helped them to revamp the program to make it user-friendly, as well as easy to understand with the use of symbols and colour.
“Every constituency is belonging to a particular region, and each candidate is given a colour. If the information is that a candidate is currently leading, then the color of the map will change to the colour designated for that candidate,” says Nyang, from the busy control room where staff are going through a dry run before Saturday.
“If another candidate overtakes the first one, then the colour of the map will change as it is constantly updated."
Bar charts will also be made available on the app, with the columns colored in to show the votes for the candidates so you'll be able to see who is leading.
Initially, Gambia Participates was using their 665 observers throughout the country to get the ballot tally, as the NGO is the largest group of electoral observers.
Each polling station belongs to a ward, and each ward belongs to a constituency.
“After collating all the resources from that constituency, they then collate at regional level to know who is leading in the region. This is complicated and what delays results with the IEC,” Nyang adds.
After the vote, the marbles are counted at each polling station, signed off by the political parties and the head of the polling station and posted on the wall for the public.
The observers would transmit the numbers through SMS messages and after verification, this would be posted on the app.
But it hit a snag with the IEC, who asked Gambia Participates not to post the tally until it had officially put the number out. Technically, once the total is posted, it's public, but Nyang says that they do not want to undermine the IEC, so will wait for them to transmit the total.
The Marble app is independent, but was given the green light by the IEC, and Gambia Participates does not want to undermine the electoral process.
The poll observer would have taken a photo of the tally, which the app interprets, says Nyang.
The group will still transmit the info to the Gambia Participates control room, but will not give that information to the public until the IEC publishes the tallies.
“Observers have a coded SMS that they send with a code and sub code. This message goes to the data base which goes to aggregation,” he says, showing on his phone that typing an SMS with a simple “hello” bounces back with an 'invalid' response.
The database quickly collects the coded information and puts it in the category it is supposed to be, which will show who is leading on the app.
Gambia, a country partially divided by the Gambia River, has seven regions and 53 constituencies.
Gambia Participates has divided their more than 550 observers throughout the country into 12 zones for ease of transportation and movement, as some official regions are divided by the river.
Understanding how to vote
“The marble is a small crystal that is dropped into a hole of the ballot drum, and the bell inside the drum will ring to say you have voted,” Pa Makan Khan, IEC public relations director tells RFI.
“Gambians love this system and they don't want to change, because it's very transparent, it works very well and it's rig-proof,” he says.
Although this method has been used for more than 70 years, Nyang says that voters don't always understand the system.
“We've seen voters put the stones on the ballot, not putting it through the polls, so that caused a lot of invalid votes,” he says.
In order to ensure everyone understands, Gambia Participates has put out an animated video in Wollof, one of the official local languages, with English captions to educate voters. It also explains how to behave and what to wear to the polls.
Nyang believes that the local language videos, coupled with the Marble app, which includes frequently asked questions and an option to chat directly to the team to answer questions, should help all voters, no matter who they choose as their next president.
End of an era
This will probably be the last time voters use marbles to vote, as a bill, tabled in the National Assembly, will change voting policies and migrate to ballot papers.
IEC's Khan says that the system was effective when few candidates ran for office, but with the advent of democracy in Gambia, more candidates means more voting drums, so the logistics become even more complicated.
“It is one thing educating people and giving them a real-time election resource, but what we also do is to ensure there's credibility in the electoral process and fair play,” says Nyang, before running to another meeting.
“We on corporate technology in the way that we work as civil society to improve the process that had been closed during the authoritarian rule of the former regime,” he says, referring to the 20-year rule of Yahya Jammeh.
Additional reporting by Charlotte Idrac