In the past few weeks, the issue of the new voter register proposed by the Electoral Commission (EC) of Ghana has become the most talked about topic on airwaves. There have been divergent views on Political Parties, the Civil Society Organization (CSO) and Think Tanks, Political Commentators among others.
Interestingly, opposing views on the creation of a new voter’s register are not technical but grounded on time factor, cost involvement and perception of collusion to rig election for the incumbent government.
The Coalition of Civil Society Organisations, the main opposition to the new voter’s register, claims that the new voter’s register is ‘useless’.
Theghanareport.com published that 18 CSOs reject the plan for a new voters' register. The publication also revealed the cost and suggested the EC opens the voter’s register for verification so that the person presumed to be dead can be deleted from the register. Also, it was suggested that the existing system should be updated to be more efficient.
Even though article 51 empowers the EC to perform its function effectively, article 297(c) provides the EC with implied and all powers needed and necessary for effective execution of duty given to its outfit by the constitution.
The trend in the political discourse for the rejection of the proposed new voter’s register is not witty and unfortunately, the media has been propelling a none informing conversation by interviewing the wrong people not experts in the field of Information Technology. This is because the reason for a new register is grounded on the technical function of the devices used for the election. It is as if the whole country is not listening to the Electoral Commission or Technical Department of the EC is barred from communicating to the public.
Accordingly, getting a new voter’s register is necessary once it is stated that the biometric devices have reached End of Life by the Electoral Commission. This is the key reason why the numerous demonstration by opposition to the creation of a new register should rather be focused on ensuring that the EC secures the quality and advanced system that can withstand the fast-growing technological space.
I have had the privilege to extend the discourse to Mr. Kingsley Mensah, a Ghanaian expert in Information Technologies at the Hubei University of Technology, (China) and a fellow at the Institute for Liberty and Policy Innovation. The conversation was interesting and may disappoint because his position supports the creation of a new register. Here are a few reasons why there should be a new voters' register:
Updating existing software is impossible.
A software can indeed be updated to be more efficient. However, the software for the election devices is not open-source software. This means that no other individual can edit the software code to be efficient except for the manufacturer of the software. The situation faced by the EC is that the manufacturer says the software would no longer receive an update, upgrade, and assistance making it very difficult and impossible to be updated. I am sure you may be aware of the news that Windows 7 reaches its End of Life on 14th January 2020, therefore, Microsoft will stop releasing updates and patches for the operating system. This does not mean that Windows 7 won't work but it becomes vulnerable to security risk and virus because one would no longer receive software updates from Microsoft. Users of Windows 7 must change to either Windows 8 or 10. The EC is faced with a similar situation with Ghana’s election software. The EC cannot do anything but change and get a new system. Those calling for the update have not been able to suggest how or ways the update can be done. It is only the vendor that can provide an update, and that will not happen because the vendor has made it clear that the software has reach End of Life.
What if the EC goes ahead and uses the same software for the election?
I am not sure if we are ready to pay the huge price of the unwanted restart, shutdowns, and glitches that may happen with the software during the election 2020. Election 2016 had the support, update and upgrade from the manufacturer, yet there was a great number of manually verified voters. This happened because the machines with support from the manufacturer could not verify the huge number of voters. In fact, in a press statement on 22nd December 2015, the EC approved manual verification ahead of election 2016 after an IPAC meeting. Manual Verification is done for people whose particulars appear on the voter’s register but who may be rejected by the biometric verification devices. This is strictly a machine problem hence the reason to allow Manual Verification. It would be worthy to add the Manual verification poses a potential loophole to rig an election.
I don’t want to imagine the pressure that will unfold in the absence of support from the manufacturer if the EC decides to use the old software for election 2020. We have a total of 15,712,499 of registered voters which per the last election we can forecast that at least 68 percent will turn out to vote. We shall turn and blame the EC if we are unable to vote on election day because of technical glitches in the absence of the manufacturer to provide on-site support on election day.
Can the EC migrate voters’ data to a new system to save cost for a new register?
This depends on the kind of data being migrated. If it is data on personal profile including Name, Date of Birth, Address, Sex, Hometown, ID card Number among others – then I would say yes to the above question. Conversely, biodata like fingerprint must be wiped out, changed and replaced. So must we all queue only for our fingerprint data to be taken. Certainly not, because the new system must also overcome the challenge to be compatible with the old system before the migration of personal data can be possible and afterward queue for our biodata to be taken. It would be easier to get a new system for a new registration rather than trying to waste time to get a compatible system to migrate data.
Let’s ask the Right Question
A Toyota car has different modules. Each of these modules can make right and left turn; each module has an engine, brake, and gears; each module has a dashboard and seats. But their performance, speed, and accuracy will certainly not be the same when comparing. This is a matter of quality assurance. Most people are worried about the cost that will be involved in the compilation of a new register. I am sure that parliament is much aware of the coffers of government in the face of the many political promises as well. Let's not focus so much on cost because of the cost of election misunderstanding out weights the cost of getting a quality system for election.
We only hear of a new register and system with little information on specification and technical features. Is the new system proposed by the EC having partial verification? This is important to know because partial verification comes with a sophisticated algorithm that makes it possible to verify someone even if he mistakenly places half or quarter of the finger on the verification machine. The EC must tell us the accuracy and performance level of the new systems. Election software and devices are not in regular use and come under excess pressure on election day. Therefore, it is important to access the specificity of the new system and how it can withstand pressure from about 15 million voting populace on election day.
Time is of Essence
Time is important for the compilation of the new voter's register, no two ways about that. Between January to October 2020 is 10 months which is not waiting for us. By opposing the new register makes one another hurdle for the EC to cross and time is not waiting for us. Now is the time to assist and help the EC so the register can be done on time. We can put pressure on the EC for the register to be done on time.
In all, if only we listen and know that the EC is not the manufacturer of the devices and software and once the manufacturer proposes the End of Life of the device, it is not a matter to be debated bring political commentators. The media should engage the right people with the technical know-how to propel informative discourse in the sphere of public policy.
Research and Development Manager, Institute for Liberty and Policy Innovation.