Growth in mobile phone usage should spur the Electoral Commission to leverage on the popularity of the gadget to boost citizens' participation in the electoral process, writes Evans Boah-Mensah.
The Electoral Commission of Ghana (EC) has begun yet another exercise to exhibit the electoral register for Ghanaians to verify their registration details towards the conduct of this year's December 7 presidential and parliamentary elections.
The stakes are high, as various political parties adopt various strategies to win majority votes to enable them assume the reigns of government for the next four years.
And the EC is bent on undertaking a smooth electoral exercise to ensure that Ghanaians above the age of 18 have a say in whoever gets the nod to govern the country come January 7, 2009.
That means citizenry participation in the electoral process cannot be toyed with, especially as contesting parties accuse each other of manipulating the electoral process - particularly the registration exercise - to their advantage.
We have been told the EC is therefore doing everything it can to ensure that most people take part in the exhibition of the voter register and clean it in order to avoid any accusation of marginalisation and disenfranchisement.
But with the troubles and frustrations that people went through during the registration exercise a couple of months back, many analysts are doubtful if people will partake in the exhibition exercise as expected.
In any case, in a world where technology has made performing tasks easier, it is still unthinkable that people should be made to continually queue for long hours in a scorching sun, just to exercise their franchise.
With the hassles and bustling that people went through during the recent registration process, it is about time for the EC to think of new ways of doing things.
We are in the 21st Century and the days when we had to queue for hours and sometimes days just to register or verify our registration details should be a memory of the distant past.
In the developed countries, voting and other electoral exercises are done online through either computers or mobile phones, so why can't we replicate similar technologies in the country to save people from the trouble that beset participation in our democratic process.
Yes, the majority of Ghana's 22 million population is illiterate and the EC is cash-strapped, but there are technological devices that are inexpensive and can be used by 80 percent of Ghanaians, and the mobile phone is one of them.
Today, about 10.3 million people in Ghana use mobile phones and with a 13 million voter population, which is statistically incorrect according to the Chairman of the Commission, mobile phones could be the answer to ensuring a transparent, honest and hassle-free voter exhibition exercise at almost no cost to the EC.
Power of the mobile phone
Arguably, the mobile phone is by far the most important 'activist' technology of the last five years.
“Smart mobs” of activists, brought to demonstrations by text messages, have led to political change in the Phillipines and the Ukraine. In 2001, SMS messages about political corruption helped turn the tide against Joseph Estrada, and led to SMS-organised street protests and Estrada's eventual ouster.
When President Gloria Arroyo succeeded Estrada, and later found herself embroiled in a corruption scandal involving tape recordings of phone-calls to voting commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, one of the tools activists used to spread information was a ringtone. The ringtone featured a snippet of dialog between Arroyo and Garcillano and rapidly became one of the world's most downloaded ringtones, spawning over a dozen re-mixed versions.
The use of mobile phones to monitor the 2000 presidential election in Ghana is also a good example of how the mobile phone device has been used by grassroots groups to monitor authority figures and then report to radio stations.
Similar techniques have been used in Sierra Leone, Senegal and even in the US - American voters used mobile phone cameras and websites to record reports of voting irregularities during the 2006 congressional elections.
Leveraging on the power of the mobile phone
The only technology that compares to the mobile phone in terms of pervasiveness and accessibility in the developing world is the radio. Indeed, considered together, radios and mobile phones can serve as a broad-distribution, participatory media network with some of the same citizen media dynamics of the Internet, but accessible to a much wider and non-literate audience.
Nowadays, public administrations across the world take the view that using digital media for consultation with citizens will help to increase their democratic participation, especially in political elections as young people in particular appear to be disengaging from civic involvement.
In the UK, the Government has encouraged local authorities to use new electronic communication channels for this purpose.
The reach of the handset communication device is extensive compared to the internet. And with the government's removal of import duties on mobile phones, the cost of the device has drastically reduced allowing more people to own the device.
The mobile is also gradually becoming a tool that is extensively used by young people, especially for exchanging text messages. There is no doubt that the mobile phone has now become a “prosthetic of the body, an extension of oneself”. It is wherever its owner is, and is thus an almost immediate means of communication.
So, with the impending voter's register exhibition exercises, it would be appreciated if companies could develop a system that leverages on the infrastructure base of telecom operators and the increasing use of mobile phones in the EC's cause of ensuring fair and transparent elections.
Companies can therefore develop a text (SMS) messaging system with a specially assigned code, which when requested with the voter registration ID number would display information on whether the voter is registered, the registration centre and the polling stations.
The role of the mobile network operators is to assign a specific short code on their network to allow their subscribers to text to it and, more importantly, ensure the security of the system.
This will help the EC to publish and exhibit the voters' registration information as the SMS enabled system allows people to always verify their voter information in any part of the country without needing to be in the presence of the registration or electoral officials.
This ensures that a swift and interactive access to voter registration information is given to the citizenry and brings them closer to election process to ensure transparency and successful elections.
It is worthy to note that the electorate can also check their voting centres at any time and from any place just by using similar service.
Apart from the fact that the txt messages will help reduce public lack of concern towards elections, the EC can also enhance its image as having the interest of the public at heart in ensuing that the country's participatory political system is deepened.
This and other products could enable the EC conduct successful elections - especially as the Electoral Commission is considered one of the best commissions on the continent, having presided over the conduct of four uninterrupted elections since 1992.
The EC has even appealed to stakeholders and the electorate to help the Commission conduct safe and peaceful elections this year, indicating that the Commission is open to suggestions and ways to improve on the electoral process.
This therefore means that the roll-call for entrepreneurs, software developers to stand up and be counted has begun as we embark on yet another milestone towards consolidating our democratic dispensation.
It is also important that the Commission seeks all possible ways, including innovative approaches, to engage the citizenry in full participation of the electoral process up to the day of elections and even thereafter, be it parliamentary or presidential.
The display of the voters' register, one of the core activities of the electoral Commission, enjoins all eligible citizens to check and validate their voter information, and the EC can do more with the use of SMS services.
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