Democracy 2.0: Procurement of elections tech
Contemporary discussions on the role of technology in elections has led to a dearth of attention over the procurement processes used to obtain this technology, processes which are uniquely at risk for corruption and other negative consequences.
Democracy — biometrics — elections — tech saviourism — procurement — digital voting systems — elections
AFRICA AS A TESTING GROUND?
In recent years, Africa has become a testing ground for new elections-related technologies. An example is the notorious Cambridge Analytica scandal which utilised micro-targeted advertising to influence elections through the unauthorised collection of Facebook data, and which was first piloted in Kenya and Nigeria before being deployed in the United States and the United Kingdom. Somaliland was hailed for becoming the first country in the world to implement iris recognition technology to register and verify voters in its 2017 Presidential election.
In these respects, African countries are at the forefront of the application of new technologies which have the potential to strengthen their democracies. This is not limited to election-related technologies, and optimistic observers expound the opportunities technology creates to ‘leapfrog’ — the process of skipping typical stages of development to move rapidly to new frontiers of innovation. Around half of all national elections in Africa now involve digital equipment of some form, most commonly biometric voter registration or identification and electronic results transmission. It is clear that the use of technology can be transformative and has an important role to play in defining how the democracies of the future will operate.
// “Optimistic observers expound the opportunities technology creates to ‘leapfrog.’
However, what does the testing of new technologies in Africa imply about how the providers of these technologies — typically foreign companies — perceive the value or strength of African democracies? Are they more willing to use new and untested technologies in a context which they perceive as less likely to hold them accountable for electoral failings? Are African elections seen as more worthy of being experimented on? On a more practical level, are nationals in African countries adequately protected against the potentially negative consequences of the uses of such technology and the experimentation on our democratic institutions?
Notably, only 52% of African countries have data protection laws currently in place, and even fewer have independent Data Protection Authorities to enforce them. Furthermore, in a context in which only 19% of the population is online (in Sub-Saharan Africa), digital literacy levels are currently insufficient to protect the public against efforts at online manipulation.
Research has found that the greatest gains from digitalisation of elections occurs in countries which already have a high quality democracy and an independent electoral commission, demonstrating that technology is not the ‘leapfrog’ enabler many think it to be. Moreover, given the typically extraordinary expenses of procuring such technologies, there is a need to carefully evaluate the benefits of such technologies for African countries.
The risks and challenges of using technology in elections has been documented in this series. For example, electoral and social institutions often struggle to keep up with the rapid evolution of technology, such as the training of observers and polling officials, etc. When complex technologies such as iris recognition are used to verify voters, election observers need to possess the requisite expertise and resources to be able to examine and oversee the technology, in the absence of which overall transparency and external accountability for an election is weakened. This risk was evident in the 2017 Kenyan Presidential Elections, in which observers used traditional monitoring methods to validate an election that used various new technologies. As a result, the Kenyan Supreme Court annulled the results after reviewing the operations of the digital systems, a demonstration that electoral institutions were not properly trained on electoral technology.
// “What does the testing of new technologies in Africa imply about how providers view African democracies?”
BUILDING A HOUSE ON SOLID GROUND
Beyond the general risks of technology, using it to ‘leapfrog’ also runs the risk of jumping forward into terrain that is unfavourable, as demonstrated in the 2013 Kenyan Presidential Elections when high-tech biometric voter identification kits failed because of the lack of power at polling stations. Without a foundation of suitable infrastructure and social and political institutions to gird it, technology risks merely being an expensive political ploy. What is needed rather is the “co-evolution of basic infrastructure and democracy.”
An area which clearly demonstrates the need for co‑evolution is that of the procurement of election-related technologies. While procuring technologies for use in elections can save costs and better facilitate free and free elections, problems can arise in the procurement process that have wide‑ranging consequences for electoral integrity and the public good.
// “Global corporations have taken advantage of the ‘fetishization’ of elections technology to corrupt procurement processes undertaken by government officials.”
In some instances, global corporations have taken advantage of the ‘fetishization’ of elections technology to corrupt procurement processes undertaken by government officials who are either ill-prepared — to be optimistic — or willingly nefarious. As Cheeseman et al point out:
“The websites of companies that market these technologies foreground this fetishization, imputing to their devices an innate power that transcends politics and human agency. Their self-presentation emphasizes modernity, offering “clear processes, supported by state-of-the-art technology”. They rhetorically lament the backwards state of many electoral processes and worry that ‘[t]echnology has revolutionized so many aspects of our lives – services, lifestyles and living standards but elections have been left behind’. These narratives cast digital technologies as “anti‑politics” machines, providing simple technical solutions to complex social and political problems.”
These technologies also come with significant price tags. Although the high costs of new technologies may be a worthwhile investment for long-term cost-effectiveness and efficiencies in electoral management, it also potentially generates rent-seeking opportunities for those involved in procuring it. These factors combine to create a context ripe with opportunity for companies to peddle their wares in Africa, and also for corruption.
As emphasised by the Joint European Commission UNDP Task Force on Electoral Assistance (JTF), “the complexities and costs of ICTs solutions make it absolutely imperative that their procurement takes place effectively and transparently.” Unfortunately, this is not always the case. For example, the procurement by the Kenyan government in 2017 of the Kenyan Integrated Electoral Management System (KIEMS) kits was criticised for taking place in the total absence of a competitive process. In another example, a Belgian company was sued in Belgium for electoral fraud in relation to the procurement of biometric voter registration kits for the 2011 election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Being able to benefit from the most cutting-edge international technologies is a significant opportunity for African countries looking to bolster their electoral processes and shore up democratic institutions. It is therefore crucial that procurement from international corporations be properly enabled and carefully managed to ensure maximum benefit. However, it is clear that the typical cross-border dynamic creates particular risks that must be mitigated.
THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY
The international community, such as development aid institutions and international financial institutions, are enablers in facilitating or incentivising the procurement of election-related technologies. In many cases, their funding and technical expertise facilitates the acquisition of valuable and potentially game-changing technologies that would otherwise be inaccessible to many states. International aid and financial institutions appear particularly apt to support the procurement of new technologies as opposed to other elements of election support. This may be because it provides a way to “channel electoral support towards procedural issues that allow [donors] to avoid accusations of partisanship and neo-colonialism.” However, “financial support from donors tends to be offered in the run-up to important elections rather than on a continuing basis, leaving countries to start registration only a few months before elections.” This often necessitates more equipment than is needed in continuous registration processes, again increasing the overall costs of procurement. In Tanzania, eight thousand biometric voter kits were procured for the country’s 2015 election which registered 23.2 million voters in four months, translating into a low average of only around 30 voters per kit per day and a total of 2,800 voters per kit.
Even without clearly illicit behaviour such as the payment of kickbacks for the awarding of contracts, donors funding these systems can exert influence to ensure that companies operating in their jurisdictions secure profitable contracts to supply elections technology. In Kenya, the Canadian government helped secure the loans needed to pay for the introduction of digital equipment in 2013 only if it was purchased from an approved company.
Limiting open and transparent procurement processes like this has consequences for the freedom and fairness of elections and prevents countries from extracting maximum benefit by using the most appropriate technologies for their particular circumstances.
Local companies tend to be consistently disadvantaged against international or global corporations seeking to sell elections-related technologies to African countries. This may result from natural factors such as the lack of domestic ICT skills and small markets, but it may also be related to a tendency to deprioritise local context and knowledge in the use of new technologies, in addition to international companies simply having more experience in composing tender documents.
The unfortunate consequence is a range of dependencies that threaten the integrity of local elections. Dependencies fall both on international supplier companies as well as the countries that are the source of the technology. The recipient country may find themselves reliant on the service provider’s host country to police or hold companies accountable, with implications for geo-politics and sovereignty.
Further, many African countries lack the domestic skills and capacities to fully manage the operationalisation or upkeep of new technologies, breeding long-term dependency on the company supplying the technology (or the funds for the technology) at the risk of letting these expensive technological systems become white elephants. This may also lock countries into a cycle in which they continue to rely on international support in order to stay up to date with ever‑evolving and ever-more-expensive election technologies. Financial dependence on foreign donors is undesirable at the best of times, but particularly so when applied to conducting fundamental democratic processes such as elections.
In some cases, a country may even find themselves locked into a particular technology solution and only able to continue using its digital systems by maintaining a commercial relationship with the particular vendor that provided them. The worst manifestation might arguably be that a country, or more specifically the election management body, cannot access its own election data at all for various reasons, such as the vendor no longer being in business or because the individual or team who developed the software is no longer available. In the case of Kenya, voting data was hosted on servers in France by the French technology provider OT Morpho, a point which arguably factored into the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s (IEBC’s) refusal to open up the servers to scrutiny during the legal challenge to the electoral results, contributing to the Supreme Court’s nullification of the results.
International providers also rarely leave behind permanent or sustainable infrastructure or knowledge in the country of implementation. It is therefore recommended that when biometric registration are implemented states should attempt at the least to leverage these programs in order to build permanent identity assets such as civil registration and national ID programs (although those, too, have attracted significant criticism in the way they’ve been rolled out). In Benin and the DRC, for example, biometric voter cards were often applicants’ first official identity documents and were used for other purposes after the elections.
Lastly, the enthusiasm for hi-tech elections also often leads to a mish-mash of different technologies provided by different companies, creating complications for compatibility. In Malawi, the process of ensuring different systems worked together took so long that it left insufficient time to audit and clean the voters roll prior to the 2014 National Election. On the contrary, contracting a single company, potentially in partnership with a local supplier, to procure a single end‑to‑end technology solution could only amplify dependency issues.
Therefore, while examples of local service providers are hard to come by, and the use of election technologies should not be put out of the reach of African countries, careful steps must be taken to ensure unhealthy dependencies are not created that risk electoral integrity.
// “Local companies tend to be consistently disadvantaged against international or global corporations.”
NECESSARY, BUT INSUFFICIENT
Without a solid foundation, problematic procurement processes lead to poorly qualified companies winning contracts, frequently resulting in delays or repeated procurement processes that inhibit the proper piloting of technologies prior to the election, and run the risk that corruption scandals further undermine the public’s trust in the electoral process and, potentially, the fairness of an election.
In addition, introducing complex and expensive procurement processes often distracts attention or resources from other crucial components of the electoral process, such as observer teams, media diversity, participation by minority groups, and party agent teams. In Mozambique, the government procured biometric registration equipment in 2014 but used it to suppress registration in opposition areas by sending inadequate equipment and undertrained teams.
Research has found that the use of technology only needs to decrease the likelihood of serious post-election violence by a few percentage points to make it a worthwhile investment. How can we therefore ensure that acquiring the technology does not undo the many potential positives of using it?
WHAT’S TO BE DONE?
First and foremost, ensuring transparency and accountability in procurement processes is a necessary precondition to fully realising the benefits of technology-enabled elections. Because these processes are uniquely suited to corruption and dependencies, due to the high costs, complexities, and technical skills required, and the tendency to procure from foreign companies, special precautions should be taken in the procurement processes of elections technologies.
Second, states seeking to acquire new technologies should review the appropriateness of a specific technology for their context and should consider whether the political will and implementation capacity exist to ensure the successful use of the technologies.
There are also other steps that can and should be taken to ensure elections technologies strengthen rather than undermine democratic institutions in Africa. Though beyond the scope of this piece, it is worth highlighting the role that open-source technology can play in augmenting public accountability. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA):
“A fundamental benefit of all open source licences is the transparency created by the requirement to have the source code publicly available. Having source code on public view can greatly ease the task of electoral stakeholders when examining voting technology and determining its quality, features and benefits.”
However, the ICTs in Elections Database shows that only four African countries have used or considered using open-source software in electoral processes.
Technology is no silver bullet for complicated and politically fraught election processes. Overly optimistic views of its potential leads to insufficient focus on the procurement processes through which such technology is obtained, a process which is too often abused to the detriment of African voters.
// “Transparency and accountability in procurement processes is a necessary precondition to realise the benefits of technology-enabled elections.”
The South African Institute for International Affairs has argued that the—
“lingering culture of business as usual in the way politics is conducted in the region, characterised mainly by a tendency to prioritise the interests of a small elite over those of the rest of the population, means that the dominant approach to [new media] has been to co-opt them into traditional systems and processes, rather than adjust the latter to the democratic possibilities offered by these technologies.”
Without transparent and accountable procurement, these technologies will only further undermine democracy, rather than enable ‘leapfrogging.’ With the prospect of the COVID-19 pandemic lingering in Africa — and resultant efforts to use technology to protect against further transmission during elections — it is important to ensure that the procurement of technology supports or undermines democratic processes such as elections, and to put in place appropriate and rigorous processes to that elections are free, and fair.
* Wendy is a Researcher // Analyst at ALT Advisory.
^ Michael is a Director // Co-founder at ALT Advisory and the Practice Lead for Public Law & Emergent Technology.
+ S’lindile is a Researcher // Analyst at ALT Advisory.
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