The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) is acquiring and investigating a number of technologies to improve voting processes and strengthen the legitimacy of future elections.

These include procuring new voter ID scanning devices for use during registration and voting, as well as the testing of electronic voting booths.

South Africa’s elections – national, provincial, and municipal – currently rely heavily on physical paper-based systems across voter registration, voting, and vote counting.

While this is generally trusted to be the most reliable method given the current infrastructure and resources, the process is cumbersome,  requiring great manpower and time, and has also been subjected to several known instances of irregularities.

Numerous countries around the world have tested or adopted e-voting as a means to ease the election process, including the US, UK, Australia, India, and Switzerland.

IEC Chief Electoral Officer Sy Mamabolo recently spoke to MyBroadband regarding the commission’s plans in this regard, and what progress has been made with regards to the procurement of new voter scanning devices – which has been in the pipeline for at least two years.

Mamabolo explained how the election process currently involved few digital systems.

From registration to vote counting, there are only two times when digital systems are used:

  • Firstly, after registration, when the IEC checks and validates the voter’s ID number with the Department of Home Affairs’ database.
  • Secondly, when the counted results are put into the IEC’s in-house bespoke application which is used to store the results and provide them for public consumption.

New voting devices with location and data services

Back in 2017, the IEC first announced its intent to procure new voter registration technology intended to support the process of voter registration, and to manage the voters’ roll on voting day.

In November 2019, it said it would soon be issuing a tender to procure 60,000 portable devices to replace the ageing existing registration devices popularly known as “zip-zip machines”.

The zip-zip machines are purely to help election officers quickly match a voter to the roll at particular stations by scanning their ID document’s barcode.

However, this machine is not linked to a larger database of all voters, which means it useless for preventing double-voting.

“The approach used to date – that of scanning an identity document and recording the data – is now outdated and inadequate for future purpose,” the IEC previously said.

“The Electoral Commission intends to harness advances in appropriate technology and apply them in this solution.”

Mamabolo explained the new devices offered two major benefits – ensuring voters are registered at the correct stations and preventing double voting.

It is able to do this thanks to two features:

  • Geo-location mapping
  • GMS connectivity

Firstly, the devices will be able to detect the address of the voter when they register at their particular station – this will ensure they are registered in the ward that they actually reside within.

In addition, the devices support GSM network connectivity, which means that every time a person votes, their ID/Smart card would be scanned and the instance will be uploaded to a central database.

This will prevent them from voting again at another station, as all the devices will be linked to this database.

Mamabolo said the IEC still hopes to procure these devices before the 2021 municipal elections, despite delays in securing the funding.

The commission has revised the number down to between 30,000 and 40,000 devices due to the high costs.

Electronic voting pilot

Mamabolo also elaborated more on the idea to pilot electronic voting booths.

“Currently there is no national policy for electronic voting, but as a responsible institution we have been looking at the different options through research over a very long period,” Mamabolo said.

The IEC’s current plan is to test an electronic voting machine which will print a receipt which reflects the voter’s choices as provided during input on the system.

“Our broad idea at the moment is to have a voter-verifiable audit trail system,” he explained.

Once the voter has double-checked that the information is correct, the receipt will be validated with a unique stamp before being placed in a ballot box.

Mamabolo said that these receipts can then be physically counted to verify the results as tallied by the machines.

Vote counting itself will, for the time being, remain a physical process, Mamabolo added.

“Because of the visual guarantee that it gives political parties, it is still the best system for now,” he said.

Double-voting

One particular problem which arose during the 2019 national election was the issue of double-voting, with instances where voters were able to cast more than one vote at different voting stations.

There were several reasons this was possible – one of which was that the primary way to identify whether someone had already voted was an ink mark on the voter’s thumb.

Social media posts showed that the ink used at certain stations – which was meant to be indelible and last for many days – appeared to be easy to wash off.

In addition, while voters who still used ID books would also get a sticker and stamp as proof of their ballot being cast, there was no way to scan or read ID Smart Cards to reflect the same.

There would therefore be no way to identify whether a person had already voted at another station if they washed their finger and used a Smart Card.

Although a delinquent could not revote at the same station for a provincial party, as this would require that they be on the list of registered voters in the ward, any voter can cast a national ballot at any station.

The commission said that a number of voters had been arrested in connection with alleged double-voting, while it was forced to conduct an audit that covered a statistically representative sample of stations.

The IEC also ordered an investigation into the effectiveness of the indelible ink marker pens supplied for the elections.

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