Soon after the Zimbabwe Government of National Unity assumed power, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology (ICT), Nelson Chamisa, focused on very trivial aspects of Information and Technology (IT) as part of his ICT policy. For example, he invested a lot of energy in promoting the creation a national website and distributing laptops to government officials under the so called “e-government computer programme”. It is very encouraging to note that the minister’s understanding of ICT and its potential benefits to the Zimbabwean society has significantly evolved over time. Biometric or digital voter registration is one of the things that Chamisa has been promoting lately.
Given the widespread voter intimidation and the alleged poll fraud of 2008, an electronic voting system could go a long way in restoring voter confidence in future elections. A biometric registration system can help sanitize the shambolic voter roll on that includes people died many years ago, including the last Prime Minister of Rhodesia, Ian Smith, who died in 2007. Furthermore an electronic voting system can facilitate absentee voting by millions of Zimbabweans in the Diaspora.
Biometric voter registration is a process in which registrants are required to have their bio-data, such as fingerprints or the iris captured by finger print scanners or cameras, stored and analysed by computers. Where this technology has been implemented, all applicants were required to be physically present at designated registration centres. One key advantage of the system is its ability to automatically detect multiple registrations, either erroneously or fraudulently introduced in the system. The system also requires the elimination of old records and replacing them with brand new and accurately entered records. Such a process will not only rid the Zimbabwe voter’s roll of duplicate registrations but also eliminate ghost registrations of people who are dead. Biometric voter registration is not new to Africa; it has been implemented in Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Zambia, and can be easily implemented in Zimbabwe.
There is a wide variety of electronic voting systems that have either been proposed or are used in different parts of the world that Zimbabwe can take advantage of. However, as opposed to biometric voter registrations which are transparent, and can easily be implemented for the 2013 general elections, electronic voting is contentious and require many years to plan for. They range from direct recording electronic systems to fully fledged internet voting systems.
In a common implementation of a direct recording electronic system, voters still go to a polling centre where they view ballots on a screen and make their choice by using an input device or touch screen. Votes can either be stored on a memory device and transported to a counting centre or transmitted directly over a network to the counting centre. This system can provide some level of voting transparency offered by the conventional voting system with a more accurate and expedited vote tallying system and ballot delivery that could prevent long delays in the release of results that Zimbabweans are accustomed to and which lead to lack of confidence in the results.
The extreme form of electronic voting involves voters casting their votes on the computer via the Internet. While this could be a viable future voting method, especially for absentee voters, a lot of work is required to make this an acceptable polling method. The most objections to this form of voting method is that both the voting and poll counting are done in a non-transparent manner and can be subject to hacking or even worse fraudulent results.
For any future electronic voting system, be it direct electronic recording systems or Internet voting, to be possible a robust broadband infrastructure is required to transmit electronic ballots from any voting location, whether within or outside Zimbabwe, to a counting center. To its credit, the Zimbabwe Government of National Unity has established a progressive regulatory environment that enables the deployment of ICT infrastructure by multiple companies. Major parts of the country have now been connected to one another and to the rest of the country by high transmission speed fibre optic networks by Liquid Telecommunications - a subsidiary of Econet Wireless, Africom, PowerTel – a Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) company and the incumbent telecommunication company, Telone. The connection of some of these networks to submarine cables EASSy, SEACOM and SAT-3 through neighbouring Telecommunication companies such as Broadband Infraco in South Africa, Botswana Telecommunication Corporation (BTC) and Telecomunicações de Moçambique (TDM) provide for a real possibility of e-voting by those in the diaspora.
For Zimbabwe, it is recommended that the country focuses on implementing a biometric voter registration immediately while putting processes in place for developing a long term electronic voting system. The major developments in ICT infrastructure will facilitate the implementation of such a voting system.