For the better part of last week, Kenya’s electoral commission (IEBC) and former footballer-turned political candidate, McDonald Mariga, were locked in a fierce controversy over the latter’s candidature.
The IEBC locked out Mariga from contesting in an upcoming by-election on grounds that his details were not in the voters’ register. Kenyan law requires that any person that wants to participate in an election or by-election as a candidate for National Assembly must be a registered voter. This voters’ register is maintained in the Kenya Integrated Election Management System (KIEMS) database and updated regularly.
The problem is that Mariga’s details, despite being correct, could not be found in the digital database. He was therefore disqualified from vying in the by-election.
Of course, Mariga appealed this decision claiming to have registered as a voter and therefore qualified to run in the election. Unsurprisingly, the IEBC reversed its earlier decision, allowing the footballer to contest for the seat. How did that happen? What exactly changed?
The electoral commission chief Wafula Chebukati stated that absence of Mariga’s name in the voter register cannot be taken as conclusive proof of lack of registration. In the view of IEBC, Mariga, who was once a soccer ace in Africa, is indeed a registered voter.
While this stance is commendable on the face of it as an attempt to uphold the constitutional values of the integrity of electoral bodies, it also exposes the vulnerabilities of centralized voter registration databases.
One of the most raised concerns about voter registration systems used by the IEBC and other African nations concerns about data security and integrity. Election processes and critical voting infrastructure are wide open to attack and manipulation. Malicious characters, for example, could easily alter voter registration databases if strong cybersecurity measures are not put in place. This greatly compromises the integrity of an election.
Conducting free and fair elections has been a problem for many democracies in Africa. In Kenya, for example, elections have often been tightly contested, with cases of widespread fraud, results manipulation, and discrepancies. The distrust in the electoral process is has risen to the point that many Kenyans do not currently believe that the IEBC can hold free and transparent elections.
Even in the case of Mariga’s candidature, fair-minded Kenyans are likely to think that the IEBC is, at best, applying double-standards and at worst acting at the behest of political forces keen on pushing their own hidden agendas.
The use of blockchain technology to bring integrity back to elections can change this. Blockchain is being touted to make elections more secure and credible.
Voter registry manipulation
If there’s anything Mariga’s candidature has done is to prove that manipulation of voter registration databases can also threaten a person’s ability to be voted for. It is possible that Mariga’s details were in the voters’ register. However, one cannot rule out the reasoning that Mariga never registered as a voter but had his details hurriedly captured in the Biometric Voter Registration System (BVR) to contest. But that’s not the point.
If a person’s identity has been removed or added to a centralized voter registration database, it is impossible to prove that such an event happened. Yes, centralized databases offer an audit log to determine whether data has been compromised and what records may have been accessed. But this logging does not necessarily guarantee that these logs are accurate and have not been tampered with. Besides, a privileged user (electoral commission official in this case) can skirt these measures by manipulating the logs.
Blockchain for voter registries
Blockchains are more secure and tamper-proof than regular databases in many ways. A blockchain-based database is extremely fault-intolerant meaning that it is impossible to alter or delete information once it is stored in the blockchain. Information about registered voters are stored in an immutable database; thereby preventing manipulation of voters data or fraud.
With blockchain, any change to the database has to completely and accurately be verified. This means that officials can confirm in real-time whether or not a person purporting to be in the voter register is indeed a registered as a voter.
Keeping our elections as secure and transparent as possible is the best way to go. It is therefore important to explore the uses of blockchain to improve the election process in Africa.