Liberia: The Pros and Cons of Biometric Voting Ahead of 2023 Elections

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Monrovia – In October 2020, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council commenced a data audit process to check the transparency and reliability of the automated voting system used in the legislative elections that year. The aim of the audit was to guarantee compliance with regulations aimed at ensuring the right to vote.

Although there have been some concerns that the Venezuelans have been flirting with a Chinese model that uses smart cards to track social, political and economic behavior, using vast databases to store information gathered with the card’s use, the audit in Venezuela sought to certify the voters’ fingerprint database of the electoral register to guarantee the non-duplication of records. Following the audit, representatives of several political organizations signed a document of compliance as part of an oversight process.

NEC’s Headache: Who Gets the US$12M Deal

In Liberia, it is becoming increasingly likely that when voters head to the polls next October, Africa’s oldest republic will be joining a select group of countries that includes Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda – to experiment with the use biometric voter authentication on polling day. Amid the ongoing controversy surrounding the National Elections Commission’s handling of the bidding process to select the company that could carry out the process, a lot of jitters are flying across the political stratosphere.

But first, the elections commission must first tackle the controversy hanging over its head as it struggles over determining which company is qualified to perform the task.

The biometric voter registration materials contract is worth nearly US$12 million. Six companies — Waymark and Mwetana, HID Global and PSI, Electoral Services International, Network Solutions, Laxton, and Ekempapplied and participated in the evaluation process conducted by the evaluation panel, but EKEMP was considered the most responsive, something that brought about concerns from sources following the procedure.

In recent weeks, NEC chair Davidetta Browne Lansanahas come under fire amid concerns that she has been playing favorites with the Chinese firm, Ekemp, prompting the PPCC to request that bidders be reinvited to appear before the Bid Evaluation Panel of the NEC for a video-recorded redemonstration of Physical presentations, regarding the bid after Ekemp was declared the winner following the first presentation.

Ekemp however performed miserably during the second presentation during which each Bidder was requested to start with a PowerPoint presentation regarding the equipment and software to be used, followed by an actual demonstration of its data entry, printing and de-duplication process- using a person persons designated by the panel.

Nevertheless, NEC chair Browne told a news conference last week that her Commission had not awarded the contract for the supply of biometric materials and equipment for the 2023 elections as has been reported and speculated.

The NEC chair however explained that the comparative audited income statements of each of the bidder showed that only Ekemp/INITS/Palm and Laxton have implemented a project worth this amount over the last two years. However, this was not a tender requirement in the latest version of the tender documents for this biometric project and this should not have been brought up by the Chair at this time of the selection process. Some observers see it as a game plant by the chair to eliminate some competent companies.

Since the Chair of NEC said Ekemp/Inits/Palm and ESI made it to the final stage of the evaluation and initially selected Ekemp, an investigation by FrontPageAfrica shows that the other company ESI implemented similar project of that amount in Kenya. It’s website shows it has been involved more than three decades of electoral processes and successfully implemented more than 250 projects in more than 70 countries around the world.

The company’s website states that its partners, States or Institutions, are its best ambassadors. According to its website ( https://esi-sei.com/product-services/biometric-voter-registration/ ), ESI has successfully completed multiple biometric voter registration projects. “We delivered accurate voter lists in Kenya (2010), The Gambia (2011 & 2015/2016), Fiji (2012) and Solomon Islands (2013/2014). Letters of recommendation are available from all of them”.

Additionally, the NEC chair stated that Laxton failed to provide audited financial statements for the immediate past year (2021), which is a requirement in the standard bidding documents. Laxton only provided statements for the fiscal years 2020 and 2019 and did not provide audited financial statements, the NEC chair noted.

Moreover, Laxton expressed a condition regarding its ability to pre-finance. “The NEC did not and has not awarded any contract to the recommended bidder or to any other bidders in this matter. Moreover, the original report shows that only Ekemp/Inits/Palm and ESI made it to the final stage of the evaluation,” the chair said.

She added: “After taking receipt of the Evaluation Panel’s report, the Procurement Committee of the NEC reviewed the standard bidding documents; the proposal of each bidder, and finding that the Panel’s report is supported by the record, the standard bidding documents and the Act, the Procurement Committee, by a unanimous vote endorsed the Evaluation Panel’s report and recommendation. The original Report shows, among others, that only Electoral Services International (ESI), the joint venture of Professional Services Inc./HID Global, and the joint venture of EKEMP/INITS/Palm met the pre-finance requirement.”

The PPCC has been insistent that NEC follows the guidelines fairly and transparently.

Pros vs. the Cons

The move toward biometric voter registration is on the rise on the African continent despite some skepticisms about whether election management bodies are doing enough to sensitize voters and constituents about the process.

Nigeria currently uses biometric technology for the registration of new voters on electoral rolls as well as the accreditation of registered voters using a Smart Card Reader (SCR). INEC’s biometric voter registry is also the largest database of Nigerian citizens.

Besides Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, Somaliland, in 2017 became the first country to use Iris recognition for elections. Iris recognition is an automated method of biometric identification that uses mathematical pattern-recognition techniques on video images of one or both of the irises of an individual’s eyes, whose complex patterns are unique, stable and can be seen from a distance.

Some experts however caution that while biometrics has raised expectations among political parties and organizations, they do not automatically prevent rigging. Biometric voter registration strengthens the reliability of the voter roll by preventing multiple registration, but it does not affect many other fraudulent strategies.

According to the International IDEA’s Information and Communication Technologies(ICTs) in Elections Database, 35 per cent of 130 surveyed countries capture biometric data as part of their voter registration process.

Additionally, twenty-five  per cent of surveyed countries use biometric information to identify voters at polling stations. In many cases, this involves manual verification, such as a poll worker checking a voter’s appearance against a photograph on a voter list. Only 9 per cent of the surveyed countries use an electronic biometric identification system, in which a computer verifies the identity of the voter.

Mr. Tiah Nagbe, Director of the National Identification Registry and former Election Commissioner during the 1997 election explains that in order for the process to work, there is a need for a clean list of voters to prevent ineligible persons from voting simply because not everyone who lives in a country are eligible to vote.

Mr. Nagbe says the voter rolls are compiled in two ways – passive voter registration and active voter registration. But many countries, especially the developed ones, use passive voter registration. “With passive voter registration, the voter list is taken from existing list(s) operated by the government, such as drivers list, state ID list, a population register or from a list of registered voters in a city which remains on the list as long as the person lives in that city or country. These voters are in the database. In this approach, the voters do not have to complete another registration to vote which is costly. The second approach, called active voter registration, requires the voter to complete a registration process for the elections. This process is often carried out by the elections commission. Active voter registration is necessary when the state does not have a complete, trusted, and reliable list from which the voter roll can be drawn.”

Explaining why active voter registration is repeated as has been the case in Nigeria and Venezuela, Mr. Nagbeasserts that when countries lack complete and reliable lists of citizens and therefore have to do active voter registration, they are forced to register voters repeatedly.

For Nagbe, biometrics ensures uniqueness. “Since one person’s biometrics do not match any other person’s biometrics. This prevents double registration of anyone through a process called biometric de-duplication. When it is used, it ensures a more credible voter roll.”

A ‘Complicated’ System

But even amid the assurances, Nagbe says the system can be quite complicated because a lot of systems are bought together to operate an integrated biometric registration system. “For this reason it requires time proper planning and great experience.”

In Nigeria for example, a recent report on the biometric process from past elections showed that the invalid registrations were detected by Independent National Elections Commission in the process of cleaning up voter registration data, noted that the invalid entries were mostly as a result of double registrations or registrations with incomplete information, making up roughly 45 percent of total completed registrations.

Nigerian voters, particularly in the rural areas believe that biometric data, such as their photograph, could expose them to “demonic manipulation, and could be used for occult practices by their enemies.”

Besides Nigeria, other countries, have seen opposition to the use of biometric voter technology because the collection of biometric information may infringe on certain cultural beliefs and practices. 

For example, in Papua New Guinea, the electoral roll is heavily inflated and can be subject to abuse. This led the Commonwealth Observer Group to recommend the use of a photo identification process, such as a national identity card (NID), could significantly improve the accuracy of the electoral roll and raise general confidence in the election.

While Nigerian authorities are contending with voter registration irregularities, Zimbabwe recently launched the second of a two-phased mobile biometric voter registration drive, ahead of the country’s elections next year, the same yere as Liberia’s.

The second and last phase of the registration exercise follows the first which took place from February 1 to 28, with the main objective of delimiting constituency sizes before the polls in 2023. Zimbabwe had earlier announced a special digital ID issuance driver to enable more potential voters to enlist their names on the electoral register.

All this as Liberia continues to struggle with voter sensitization and education about the process, adding more complications that could likely lead to legal problems, depending on the results of next October elections.

Recently, a technical workshop was held by both NEC and the National Identification Registry(NIR) to educate political parties about the biometric voters’ registry being established for the 2023 General and Presidential Election.

A Costly process

Although that workshop focused on the implementation of the system and the collaboration between the two government bodies, critics say, not much emphasis and efforts are being placed on voters and constituencies likely to benefit from the process.

Accordingly, the biometric registration will be carried out by the NEC, with data passed to the NIR, and from there to the Liberia Statistic Geo-Information Service (LISGIS).

The biometric registry is intended to cut down on duplicate voter registrations and underage voting.

Ironically, NIR Executive Director Nagbe recently urged the representatives of the parties to cooperate fully with the registration process and adequately fund the institutions and the process.

For Nagbe, the biometric process is costly and overwhelming for voters and produces less reliable voter rolls. “The reason for re-registration of the voter is because the election commission has no way of preventing someone whose name is on the last voter roll from double registering on the next one by simply changing his or her name. For example, if Joe Doe registered in 2017 and decides to keep that card and re- register in 2023 as Peter David, it is impossible for the elections commission to know that this same person had registered before. He can keep two cards and vote twice. So, they have to do a registration of all voters for each general election. In Liberia, someone who was born before 1967 October has registered 5 times to vote ( 1985, 1997, 2005, 2011 & 2017). That person’s counterpart in the US may have registered a single time to vote. This is one reason why elections cost 10 times more in Liberia than in developed countries.”

Political observers say, as Liberia limps toward the 2023 Presidential and legislative elections, NEC must race toward time in a bid to make the best decision in the quickest possible time or the biometric process made not be implemented in the 2023 elections.

Elections experts with experience in biometric election process also worry that if NEC cannot sign a contract with a creditable, professional and experienced company with a history in this process by November 2022, it will be very difficult or impossible for a company to meet the completion time in the tender.

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