When elections take place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, tens of thousands of electronic voting machines are to be used. The opposition is as skeptical of the technology as it is of the poll taking place on time.
Unrest, instability and more and more protests in the Democratic Republic of Congo: The opposition is calling on President Joseph Kabila to step down. He has repeatedly shifted elections since his term of office ran out at the end of 2016.
The date for the poll is currently set for December 23.
The opposition’s concern is not confined to another possible postponement of the election. Around 60,000 electronic voting devices are to be deployed. “No devices, no elections,” the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) says.
Without them, the vote cannot go ahead on time, it believes. The main opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) strongly opposes the use of the machines. Its leader, Felix Tshisekedi, has dubbed “fraud machines”.
‘We can’t shirk from it’
Faster, more efficient and transparent: Congo is not the only African country to hail the advantages of the electronic voting machine.
“When one looks at how quickly technology is developing, it’s clear we can’t shirk from it. We should also use them to our advantage,” says Rhoda Osei-Afful of theGhana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana).
While Western countries such as the Netherlands and Ireland have scrapped the so-called e-voting machines, a growing number of African countries are conducting polls, at least in part, electronically.
On the one hand, there are biometric electoral rolls. Elections in at least half of Africa are conducted using fingerprinting or iris recognition. That is to prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots twice or having someone else use their identity to vote.
Electronic voting machines are used in Namibia among others. Intermediate solutions are in place in countries like DR Congo where the machines are used for voting but ballots are printed and counted.
A question of trust
“An electronic voting device is a black box,” explains Leonardo Gammar, the founder of the Swiss start-up Agora. The company has developed new voting technology. In the United States it took hackers 19 hours to crack a voting device.
In DR Congo too, there is little trust in these devices. The opposition rightly doubts their reliability, says Gregor Jaecke, representative of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in DR Congo.
There are no guarantees that the machines will function. Even the electoral commission in South Korea, where the devices are built, distances itself from e-voting technology.
During a presentation of the devices in the Congolese parliament at the start of the year, some of the devices failed.
That does not raise confidence in the technology and, experts say, harbors further dangers.
“The open observation of the manipulation of voting is as important as actual hacking. Whether or not there’s been an attack or manipulation, the minute people doubt the vote result, trust is breached,” says Peter Wolf of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
In Kenya, for example, the opposition challenged the outcome of the election in 2017, due in part to the failure of electronic voting systems. Violent protests ensued.
Other factors make the use of voting machines more difficult in Congo: 46 million people are registered to cast their ballots. Most will encounter these machines for the first time on voting day.
The computers function only in the official language, French, although the country has more than 400 languages and dialects. Not all Congolese can read and write. Around 600,000 voting assistants still have to be trained – a huge logistical exercise – ahead of the poll, says Jaecke.
There is also the lack of infrastructure over wide parts of the country that is six times the size of Germany. The transport in outlying areas is challenging. Problems such as power outages, high temperatures and humidity could also lead to the failure of e-voting devices.
Other countries have encountered such problems. During its presidential elections in 2012, Ghana introduced a biometric voter identification system. Some machines failed to verify fingerprints.