Round Table 3 [Anglophone Africa] – Digital Public Infrastructure for Electoral Processes

Open Knowledge Foundation announces its new project, Digital Public Infrastructure for Electoral Processes, in an online Round Table with experts, activists and academics from Anglophone Africa. The objective is to share experiences and challenges around electoral processes and technologies. We believe that the technologies that support electoral processes must be open, collaborative and public.

Last Wednesday, November 15th, we had the pleasure of organising the third round table to share experiences related to the development of open digital technologies and data standards in electoral processes, with a focus on initiatives from Anglophone Africa.

Beyond presenting our new initiative, the main objective of the event was to listen to and know the local perspectives of each participant, in the hope of identifying common points and possibilities for collaboration.

This roundtable was co-organised with AfroLeadership. Special thanks to Charlie Martial Ngounou for helping us put together a wonderful panel.

Round Table

Amina Miango, from the Independent National Electoral Commission, talked about Nigeria’s journey in introducing technology in their elections. The election of early 2023 was the first time Nigeria introduced technology in a wide range of activities, from voter registry, candidate nomination information, and transmissions of some aspects of the results. Despite all the technological implementations, Nigeria still struggles with a lack of physical infrastructure like areas without mobile networks or access to the internet. A large percentage of the population that votes don’t have the means nor the literacy to access the information online. As a Nigerian citizen, she pointed out that a key problem was the lack of a clear definition of Transmission of Results, as well as the need to put out policies in a way the general population can understand.

Kojo Impraim, from Ghana and the Media Foundation for West Africa, opened by saying that the issue of Digital Public Infrastructure for Electoral Processes has gained currency in the last few years. One of the key challenges to sort out is the trust in public institutions. In 2012 they introduced biometric voter registration as a pilot project among other issues like transmission of results. It was claimed a number of irregularities occurred during the 2012 elections, including over-voting, voting without biometric verification and voting with duplicate serial numbers. And one of the parties petitioned the Supreme Court for the elections to be annulled. He mentioned as well that internet connectivity in the countryside is still an issue, so digital inclusion needs to take into consideration that people without connectivity will be excluded. The inclusion of citizens in policymaking will be a requirement for the successful implementation of a Digital Public Infrastructure for Electoral Processes. Due to the perceived mistrust in the Electoral Commission, transmission of results is always a problem. Credibility in voter registration is also important so there is an effort to constantly deploy technology to make it more trustworthy (like facial recognition).

Charity Komujjurizi, from Uganda and the Africa Freedom of Information Centre mentioned that even when the government had an initiative to integrate technology in the process, the infrastructure failed. Internet shutdowns and poor physical infrastructure are a huge barrier. She shared an amazing project called Election Violence Dashboard to monitor violence during elections with a three-person verification system to check information. It gathered 120.000 reports and 1.700 murders (261 confirmed), and it was able to display some high-level statistics, for example: 42% of the incidents were perpetrated by the police and 19% by the military. In the election there were many risks so it was decided not to make it publicly available, however, it made a huge impact, given that having access to real-time data led to informed decisions and different engagements to ease the violence and controlling areas. At one point they saw the President give a public speech about what the military was doing and calling the military to stop the violence and arrest of the responsible. The data they collected was informing the electoral process around the country.

Vusumuzi Sifile is an Executive Director at the Panos Institute Southern Africa. He started agreeing with previous comments that we are experiencing an increased use of digital tools to manage electoral processes like voter registration, results and transmission; however, there are still challenges around affordability, capacity and accessibility. The second challenge he mentioned was trust: trusting that the technology has actually the capabilities to solve the problems it claims to solve and also trusting the human who operates the technology. Even if the results are transmitted with technology, they still need to see the physical ballots and be able to open and physically count votes. He mentioned that a Digital Public Infrastructure for Electoral Processes is a timely discussion since we can no longer discuss elections without discussing technology and that we need to work towards harnessing technological advances.

Alfred Nkuru Bulakali, Deputy Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 Senegal/West Africa, welcomed the experience and the opportunity to share experiences. he started by shifting the focus away from the benefits to point out that we should also analyse how technology is used against the election itself and the role technology plays in spreading misinformation. He pointed to a bold issue regarding the media: Who is controlling the media and which media has the capacity to migrate fast to the use of technology? In West Africa, media belongs to politicians or to influencers that are in the corridor of power, meaning that when the time comes to use the benefits of the technology in the media, its benefits will not cascade to the general public. One of the jobs they are doing is to make sure that every portion of the population is taking advantage of the elections, focused on women, young, and people with disabilities; making sure they are informed about the process and the legal framework around elections. The key challenge they are facing: the civil society is having issues because they are slow in taking advantage of the information that digital public infrastructure is providing. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, electronic voting machines created disparities in the process and lacked trust. The slogan was: “Machine to cheat, not machine to vote”. Lastly, he mentioned that a common issue across African countries is that access to information remains key for people to be able to exercise their right to vote as well as decision-making processes not being disclosed.

After the roundtable, we had a small discussion with participants to share thoughts around what we were listening to.

Taona Mwanyisa welcomed the initiative in terms of providing a platform where information becomes easily accessed given that this is the biggest challenge they are facing in Zimbabwe. The issue of Digital Public Infrastructure in Elections was introduced as a remedy but, in most cases, once it is done there is no ecosystem that supports the transparency in the use of technology during elections. There is still a lot of secrecy and lack of integrity surrounding processes and electoral data and that creates a situation that allows for the civil society to occupy that space. In this line of thought, the Digital Public Infrastructure for Electoral Processes initiative provides the framework that we can use as a warehouse to store information and all civil society initiatives.

Kathleen Ndongmo, a “good troublemaker” from Cameroon and part of AfroLeadership shared three important fronts that we need to work on: a) 3 billion people in the continent remain unconnected and rely on traditional media to get access to information, b) the importance of trust, by cutting unconnected people we are eroding the trust in the electoral process, and c) everyone deserves access and we need to ensure it.

About the Project

The Open Knowledge Foundation wants to create and enable an international alliance to advocate, design and implement building blocks for a Digital Public Infrastructure for Electoral Processes. The goal of the alliance is to create open-by-design technology that can be reused to make democratic processes more trustworthy, resilient, and transparent.

It is not about voting systems. It’s about how open source technology can support all of the stages of the electoral process. From managing the database of candidates and polling stations to the publications and archiving of results.

Democracy needs to be more participatory and only openness can create the foundations for processes where people can be integrated.

The first step in this initiative is to understand what is already available in the field of open elections. We are carrying out a collaborative mapping of local and global projects to gather critical mass and identify gaps, elements that can be reused and the most urgent needs.

Do you know of existing projects or professionals contributing to a digital public infrastructure for elections? Add them now to our Project Repository or Global Directory under the Open Elections category.

Join the Coalition

You can express your interest in being part of the coalition working on this project. Fill out the form below and stay tuned for our team to get in touch with more information about the next steps.