With e-voting Nigeria can save half of INEC’S current budget
The Executive Chairman of Polling Systems Ltd, Mr Mfon Eyoma, is an engineer and chartered accountant with 30 years experience. He discusses with TOBI AWORINDE some solutions to the challenges of conducting elections in Nigeria, for which he developed the
Can you give a brief insight into how your software, Pollbook, functions?
Pollbook is an online voters’ register with inbuilt polling engine. users voluntarily register on the platform by filling out a registration form on the platform. Once registered, any user can create a poll and also vote on any poll created by other members. So, the software was designed primarily to obtain public opinion on any issue that any user wants the opinion of others on. Additionally, it has other features of any social media platform, such as individual or group chat, which works on the basic principle of followership. lastly, any association of people can create a private group on the platform for its members to join. Once a private group is created, the association can create elections with a polling engine on the platform for purposes of electing officers to run the association, according to its constitution. Candidates or charities can also create campaign pages, present their manifesto, communicate with and engage their constituents, and raise funding for their campaigns and causes.
What distinguishes your software from likes of Facebook and Twitter?
The major difference between Pollbook and other social media platforms is that Pollbook converts social media users to ‘registered voters’ in much the same way as Facebook and Twitter convert their users to a market of sellers and customers of goods and services. The very word ‘pollbook’ means a voter register and is commonly used to refer to an electronic voter register or e-pollbook. Pollbook’s robust polling engine is built around the application’s voter registers, which in turn mimic the delimitation criteria of the official electoral regulation authority in any country or jurisdiction that we operate in such as Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission, in addition to other data unique to the individual user or group. This makes Pollbook a social ‘opinion’ media application electronic voting machine, as opposed to a mere social chat or messaging platform. Our aim is to provide technology for reliable polls on topical political issues and elections in any country that we operate in. We believe that in the digital infotech age, open online and real-time polls should replace the current restrictive stochastic opinion surveys that so often fail woefully at predicting the outcomes of general elections.
decade now. How are you planning to make it a reality?
Immediately Facebook was launched, we recognised the potential of the technology to be applied for online polling and, by extension, online elections. The clamour for electronic voting is a response to the real shortcomings of current manual elections, which include the very credibility of our elections and the high cost of logistics and security to produce and transport election materials in a developing country such as Nigeria. Since automation limits human intervention and interference, it should present a solution to the rigging of elections and solve some of the logistics and cost problems identified above, albeit with the manageable challenges around cyber security.
We set out to demystify electronic voting with Pollbook and thereby show that not only can Nigerians develop the technology for it locally but we can lead the world on this. The polling engine that we’ve developed at Pollbook can be easily adapted for any general election by replacing the voter register on the platform with INEC’S Voter Register, complete with the biometric data and other security solutions around access and data storage. So, yes, you just have to look at Pollbook to see that electronic voting is already enabled in Nigeria and its reality now depends only on the adoption of the available technology by the government.
I was personally elated this past week to note that INEC’S current Continuous Voter Registration exercise is starting off with pre-registration online. We at Pollbook especially welcome this development as a sign that electronic voting is gradually becoming a reality in our country.
How easy will it be for Nigerians in the diaspora to participate using this platform?
let me quickly emphasise that Pollbook is not an official voting platform of INEC and so Nigerians in the diaspora cannot participate in Nigeria’s general elections on the platform but they can certainly participate in opinion polls posted on the platform by simply registering like any other user and selecting their country of residence from a dropdown of countries and territories on the platform. That said, we believe that the exclusion or, to be more blunt, disenfranchisement of Nigerians in the diaspora from our general elections is an avoidable outcome of the inherent logistical problems of our manual voting process.
To be fair, even developed countries still struggle with this issue, so for a country with an antiquated public postal service, our problem appears insurmountable. Electronic voting in the simplest model that Pollbook has developed, which makes it possible for voters to register and vote with a choice of electronic device—smartphone, tablet, personal computer, etc. from anywhere on the planet—is the obvious way to go in the future. However, even more pressing for us within Nigeria is the problem of having to travel to any place we happened to register at as voters just to be able to vote in an election.
This problem is further compounded by the requirement to move your registration to a new locale every time you move house so as to be captured in that locale’s voter register before you can vote on election day. On a more radical level, I personally can glimpse the possibility of both indigenes and residents to vote during general elections in a state, regardless of where the indigenes happen to live or travel to on election day. We probably even have to test public opinion on that on Pollbook very soon, if you would agree with me.
Do you think electronic voting will be a reality by 2023?
No! I think the time is too short to generate the political will and public confidence for electronic voting by 2023. Not only do we need time to debate and amend the constitution and INEC Act accordingly, but to test, perfect the security, deploy the technology, and sensitise Nigerians to trust and operate it. Additionally, and more importantly, INEC might need to provide dedicated devices and run the system in parallel with manual voting in selected polling units in the beginning. So, there are initial cost implications to consider and budget for. I think that we might just be able to try it out on a limited basis in 2027 and to go all the way in 2031, but this would depend on the political will of the next government, which, hopefully, we will see during the campaigns leading up to the 2023 elections.
How would you avert the interference of political interests, domestic and foreign, in the conduct of elections?
Any election is about political interests and it is futile to attempt to make it anything otherwise. Rather, our commitment is in assisting in any way we can to provide a level playing field so that the contest is not rigged in favour of any contestant or interest group. And this goes beyond electronic voting at general elections to include the entrenchment of internal democracy in political parties and the resolution of questions around party and campaign funding. On the first point, electronic voting at party primaries modelled along the simplicity of Pollbook polls can help parties achieve 100 per cent direct primaries and replace the current indirect primaries that are all too easily hijacked by so-called moneybags and political godfathers.
Even principal officers of a party can easily be elected by eligible members in an electronic voting, thereby reducing the influence of political godfathers to select imposed officers. Going from this to my second point on party and campaign funding, political parties can greatly reduce their members’ apathy with the internal democracy and transparency of party elections and thus attract annual dues from their members who would readily pay up to be eligible to vote in the party’s elections and participate in party affairs.
What steps will be taken to ensure transparency?
Audit trail! Transparency is built into an electoral process by automating the audit trail so that human intervention and interference is minimised or eliminated. The audit trail provides required information for independent post-election audit. In Nigeria, the electoral audit and litigation process is very expensive right now as an aggrieved party must employ not only a battery of senior advocates but very expensive forensic auditors. However, at least one election has been determined on the basis of tedious collation of forensic evidence, so we know it can be done. Our commitment is therefore to crash the cost of post-election audits by building an audit trail in the electronic voting process that can itself be verified independently both before and after an election. Hopefully, the existence of such a trail would act as a deterrent to any would-be violator and in the unlikely event that the trail is compromised, it would be enough grounds to cancel the election and rerun it with more resources and vigilance.
Given the underdeveloped telecommunications infrastructure in the country and limited access to smartphones, how will disenfranchisement be prevented as a result of imminent technical problems?
I’m happy to say this problem no longer exists and those who continue to drum it up are disingenuous, to say the least. I doubt that there is any household, or let’s even say any village in Nigeria, that does not have a smartphone or telecom coverage. If there is, we can very quickly provide a location with the hardware and connectivity accessible to all voters in that locale.
All voters can create and access their private account using any available device so that on election day, one device can serve many voters who would simply take turns to log onto their account, go through a simple online accreditation process and vote. you don’t need to actually own the device. Obviously, the question arises that people can forget their login details but then a recovery process can be designed, developed, tested and confirmed to be reliable before election day. Another question from detractors is usually that people can sell their vote by giving out their login details but since they already do so by queuing up to vote for anybody who has paid them in advance for it, the problem is not that of electronic voting but civic education and orientation.
Can you give an idea of how much an election conducted via electronic voting could cost?
The cost would depend on the electronic architecture. If we retain the polling unit structure that INEC already has and aim to provide devices at all polling units, we can limit this budget to the current cost of printing, storing and transporting the election materials to and from the polling units, but I would recommend that we rather spend a fraction of that amount to provide Internet access at a central location and invite voters to come to the polling unit with their devices on election day. Apart from the fanfare and camaraderie of the occasion which can be innovatively harnessed to attract voters, this would discourage career ballot-box snatchers who might want to disrupt the election by snatching the few devices provided by INEC.
The other costs associated with adapting the technology and perfecting bank-grade cyber security and data storage required can be achieved at a fraction of the current INEC election budget, since we already have a workable biometric voter registration system and records. Additionally, the prohibitive cost of reprinting election material to correct errors or obey court judgments procured after the materials have been printed is immediately eliminated in an electronic voting process as INEC can simply make the correction online at any time before election day.
Accordingly, I’d assess the cost of electronic voting conservatively at less than 50 per cent of INEC’S current annual budget, including the budget of the election year. It can be further argued that this cost can even be offset by savings on INEC’S recurrent expenditure and the multiplier effect that local production of personal computers and smartphones can generate by leveraging the cost of electronic voting to develop the local industry.
I vividly remember the boost that INEC’S electronic and biometric voter registration exercise generated in the local computer manufacturing industry in the run-up to the 2007 elections. I just wonder what that industry would look like now if we had sustained that policy and effort.
How will the electronic voting process affect the way elections are currently conducted?
Electronic voting will change the current system of queuing at polling units in the rain or sun just to vote on election day as people can vote on any device in the privacy of their homes. It will also eliminate disenfranchisement of whole communities of voters by the non-appearance, lateness or the hijack of voting materials. Much of the hardship associated with the current manual voting process occur around logistics and security; travelling to the location where the voters register is displayed and the attendant risk of insecurity associated with such avoidable trips, especially at this challenging time.
Electronic voting will also eliminate the unproductive practice of restricting movement on election day, and bring our general populace up a notch in the use of technology. The aggregate benefit of all this is that it should also reduce apathy generated by the fear of violence, delays and queuing under inclement weather at the polling unit on election day.
lastly, instead of the current general apprehension, election day can be turned into a community fanfare with cultural displays and merriment and in the remote incident of any disruption, voters can disperse to safety but still vote safely on their devices. The mere possibility of this option is a strong deterrent to any would-be hooligan or political thug and their masters.
At the close of the election, the results can be made available online, real-time, on everybody’s account, depending on the government’s policy on the publication of election results but whether published real-time online or not, the results are automatically saved in the audit trail and cannot be tampered with. This removes human interference and error in the manual collation process and announcement of results that so often generate controversy and lead to most of the post-election violence and rancour that we see.
What other hardware apart from voters’ mobile devices will be required for a successful electronic process of elections?
Storage servers or data centres where we choose to deploy our independent servers and boycott cloud data storage services, which present undesirable risks of reliance on foreign service providers and interference associated with such exposure. Again, INEC’S investment in data centres would boost the local ICT industry and capability.
There have been several attacks on INEC offices of late. How could electronic voting circumvent such attacks?
unfortunately, electronic voting cannot solve this particular problem directly, but if we consider that the attacks might have been carried out more to render the commission incapable of conducting elections in those areas in 2023 than as mere expression of citizens’ anger and frustration with government or other reasons, then we can see that electronic voting can make such attacks fruitless in the future and thus discourage the attackers. If everybody knows that INEC doesn’t need a physical office to conduct elections in any state or polling unit for that matter, the incentive to burn down the commission’s facilities for the express reason of incapacitating the commission is immediately removed.