Ideas & Debate

Technology is the answer to Kenya’s vote headache

Kenyans queue to register as voters early this year. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Kenyans queue to register as voters early this year. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

It is late November 2022.  Kenya has just held Africa’s first-ever paperless general election. The brave decision to use blockchain technology has, at last, delivered an end-to-end voter experience, making it possible for the individual voter to verify that their vote was correctly recorded, and correctly counted. 

This m- and e-voting experience — through mobile phones and web browsers — seems a far cry from the legacy of endless queues, overloaded ballot papers and dreaded Forms 34 A, B and C. 

The promise of blockchain — that you can’t change the past, hack the present or manipulate the future – has come to fruition.  This is an M-Pesa moment —Kenyans now trust the technology.

But it’s not just about the technology. It’s also about a re-imagined role for Kenya’s electoral management body.  After the experiences of 2007, 2013 and 2017, political sense prevailed and the body was reordered. 

Board membership now reflects political balance; harking back to the 1997 IPPG deal.  Implementation, that is, managing the election, has been outsourced to private professional firms bound by iron clad contracts and service level agreements. 

What about the day-to-day work carried out by the IEBC in the past?  Registration has gone back to where it belongs — in the Ministry of Interior responsible for all population registration.  Boundaries work now resides in a revamped Ministry of Land, Physical and Spatial Planning.

Mostly, however, the leap of faith into a full-tech election has meant that we get back to our daily lives and business at the earliest. 

The technology helped, but the greater gain has been a truly professional approach to delivering a free, fair, credible and transparent electoral process, and a believable electoral outcome.

In short, credible people/institutions and credible processes/technology. In sum, an end-to-end experience from identification, through registration, identification again, voting and results.

A November election?  Well, let’s all agree an August election doesn’t work for business, while a December election interrupts our year-end holiday.

Who knows, once we start to regain the belief that our vote really matters, we might just begin to think about cutting-edge thinking around stuff like liquid democracy, or, God forbid, quadratic voting.

Envisioning tomorrow’s future is one way to consider today’s problems. 

So, let’s rewind to the present.  The Supreme Court declared the 2017 presidential election result and declaration invalid, null and void. A plain reading of the Court’s determination is that the end did not justify the means; that the principles and processes underpinning the election were as important, if not more important, than the actual result.

First, Nasa issued a list of demands around the fresh election date, a full KIEMS audit, the wider electoral infrastructure (voter register, and polling stations and officials), transparency and changes in the IEBC secretariat.   Jubilee then provided a different list of unwanted staff. 

When IEBC chair Wafula Chebukati responded in one page to the latter and four pages to the former, one elected Jubilee official faulted the shorter response. 

We are so far from the vision I outlined earlier that like Pluto, it’s invisible to the naked eye. 

But, we have an election to run.  And, hopefully, a more complete voter experience than we had in August.  I suspect this is a great time for big compromises between our two increasingly irritating political formations. 

Here are some thoughts, which won’t get us to 2022, but will at least allow us the rest of 2017.  To be clear, Kenyans are not interested in a long-lasting caretaker government.

First, renegotiate the date.  October 24 seems like a happy compromise between October 17 and 31.  It also gives the IEBC a 30-day window to pursue corrective actions based on the Supreme Court’s detailed judgment expected by September 22. 

School examinations?  One supposes that education authorities have the mental acuity to factor in contingencies around a few days.  Let’s call this the Jubilee concession for the sake of this country.

Second, forget technology.  Our “zero human intervention” KIEMS turned out to be a dud. Let’s use it as a biometric identifier and then run the rest of the stuff manually – counting and tallying; no “portals” or “screens”; or scanning, streaming and the like – until we have verified constituency totals.  This is a “back to basics” suggestion, remembering our 2022 dream. 

KIEMS audit?  Yes, let’s do it, and treat any findings as a criminal matter, not as something to fix in 30 days.  Call this Nasa’s concession for the sake of the country.

Third, as some have suggested on social media, let’s get our media houses into a joint effort providing live recording and transmission of results announcement at polling stations, and constituencies.

To a large extent, mainstream media has been largely voyeuristic during this electoral process, entertaining without educating; broadcasting without informing; publishing without analysing.  This is an opportunity for the Fourth Estate to reclaim its space as the conscience of the country.

Fourth, the IEBC. My future IEBC doesn’t exist.  But for now, the management compromise suggests that the project team works with, not against, the accounting officer. 

And, as the chair suggested, let’s get Jubilee and Nasa representation on this project team. Commissioners? One suspects that travel advisories by international development partners will temper any partisan proclivities. After all these commissioners were appointed because they were independent, no?

Finally, the voter experience. This is a single vote. The only spoilt votes will be zombie votes. Polling should be quickly, and counting even faster. 

There’s another point to this voter experience. Recall that the Supreme Court case didn’t even refer to our votes/ballots, just ambigious Form 34 totals. This time people want to know that their votes counted.

And, hopefully, that the votes that counted will deliver the person most suited to delivering a legacy of the perfect poll I dream of in 2022.