Murphy’s Law and E-voting in Kenya

05_Flatbed_WEB - MAY

The fallout of Kenya’s 2007 elections left 1,200 people dead and thousands more displaced after mass-speculation of rigging. For the general elections last Spring, the Kenyan government decided to use “e-vovting” in effort to curb corruption, increase voter turnout and restore its citizens faith in democracy. It was supposed to be the most modern election in African history, in accordance with Kenya’s desire to become a regional ICT-hub. Polling stations had laptop registration centers, computerized voting kiosks with biometric identification thumb pads, and a realtime SMS vote count relay. Quite an ambitious project for any country, let alone one where only 23 percent of its citizens have access to electricity.

Alas, it didn’t work, as NPR reported in March,

First the laptops ran out of battery power. Organizers had failed to consider that African school buildings, where many of the polling stations were situated, don’t have electric outlets. Then the biometric identification kits started to crash. Poll workers didn’t have the PIN numbers and passwords they needed to restart the software. Paper ballots were rolled out and voter lines slowed to a crawl, forcing some voters to wait seven to nine hours in the hot sun to cast their ballots. Voting concluded on Monday, but the tech hiccups did not. A bizarre computer bug multiplied the number of disqualified ballots by a factor of eight, leaving Kenyans livid and demoralized for several days in the belief that more than a quarter-million votes had been summarily tossed out in the incredibly tight race. The SMS-relay system overloaded, too, forcing election officials to airlift poll workers to Nairobi by helicopter to hand deliver the results.

Quite the trifecta from technology hell; nearly every trepidation that citizens and governments alike have when it comes to implementing e-voting became a reality. Fortunately, Kenyan’s displayed an impressive amount of patience and no violence occurred.

Some of the lessons from this rather uninspiring  implementation of e-voting are  obvious — i.e. best check to see if there’s anywhere to power all this technology. It also leaves us with a larger, more disheartening question: can full scale political e-voting work in the developing world? E-voting has been successful in many European countries, but when a country’s ICT infrastructure is as limited as or worse than Kenya’s, maybe using ICTs to leapfrog development deficiencies isn’t the most appropriate approach. The stakes are too high.

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