Technology, transparency, and the Kenyan general election of 2013

Although Kenya has made strides in democracy, the election results show that technology has failed them.

Election clerks go through the re-tallying for votes after the Kenya Supreme Court issued an order in the ongoing Presidential poll petition in Nairobi
Kenya's Supreme court ordered a re-count of votes cast at 22 polling stations after outgoing Prime Minister Raila Odinga disputed election results that saw rival Uhuru Kenyatta declared winner in the presidential polls [Reuters]

It was a historic moment for the nation, the African continent and the world when the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) announced on March 9 that Uhuru Kenyatta, son of independence leader and first Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta, had been elected the fourth president of Kenya.

Yet, today, almost three weeks later, the Kenyan presidential race is far from over. Raila Odinga, Kenyatta’s main political opponent, has challenged this result in front of Kenya’s Supreme Court. Odinga wants the court to nullify IEBC’s declaration of Kenyatta as president-elect. He also seeks to persuade the court that the whole electoral process leading to that declaration was null and void and that a fresh poll should be held. A core component of Odinga’s argument is that the technology failed on election day.

Global observers such as the European Commission noted [PDF] that “the overall conduct of operations was good and that the recorded results reflected the will of the voters”, despite the fact that the electronic technology largely failed. Indeed, Kenya has made great strides in increasing transparency, trust in the electoral process and strengthening the nation’s democratic institutions. It is correct to note that in the 2013 Kenyan general election, the information technology failed, because of lack of preparation, and poor testing. The country’s political technology – the institutions and the processes – were nonetheless largely successful. Importantly, since the final and official vote tally is manual, the process is much more important than the equipment.

Although Kenya has held elections for decades and multi-party elections since 1992, only two of those elections (2002 and 2013) have been conducted in a free and fair manner. The 2007 election between sitting President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga went terribly wrong. A near tie in ballots led to politically sponsored violence bought and paid for by candidates in both camps, resulting in over 1,400 Kenyans dead, and hundreds of thousands displaced. The road back to recovery was difficult, as the country tried to reconcile ethnic tensions and strengthen institutions to prevent this horrific scenario from reoccurring. The pressure was on for the Kenyan 2013 general elections to be both fair and peaceful.

Kenya court hears petitions against vote results

Facilitating voting through technology

After the chaos of the 2007 elections, the Kenyan government used a higher level of technology in the 2010 Constitutional Referendum and various by-elections to enhance the credibility of results. The plan was that the 2013 elections would represent a technological apex for voting. The vision was to use technology for two key aspects of the voting process.

The first application of technology in the 2013 elections aimed to guarantee the integrity of the voter register through the use of a Biometric Voter Registration system that was acquired at a cost of 95 million USD. The voter registration exercise was conducted over 30 days towards the end of 2012 and was lauded as a success with over 14 million voters registered. This voter register was made available at each polling station in two forms, a biometric Electronic Voter Identification device (EVID or Poll Book) and a printed copy. Both of these methods served the same purpose, to authenticate the identity of each voter before they vote.

The second application of technology was to provide an electronic method of transmitting provisional results (votes counted and verified by party agents at polling stations). This was to facilitate rapid announcement of the provisional vote count with results being physically delivered to the National Tallying centre for the official, final tally. The IEBC received technical assistance from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) under a USAID-funded programme.

Mid-election, technical irregularities began. Nationally, there was widespread failure of the EVID Poll Books due to battery discharge and lack of electricity in polling stations. Many of the cell phones meant to transmit provisional results to the tallying centres also did not work due to forgotten passwords, low battery and data connection problems. Finally, computer servers at the national tallying centre collapsed. The IEBC was forced to suspend the announcement of provisional results and await submission in person of official results using the manual forms (form 36) submitted by constituency returning officers.

Two things stand out here: the IEBC’s late procurement of both services and equipment related to the election, and the fact that all technology should have been tested and debugged far in advance of the election. The failures that occurred were both foreseeable and preventable. Of note was the failure to plan for backup power. Electricity fails routinely in Nairobi, and is often absent in rural areas altogether. In addition, the cell phones and biometric scanners were not procured until approximately one month before the election, and were most likely not tested sufficiently for either load or other stresses. Professor Makau Mutua asks whether the collapse of the computer systems during vote tallying was due to incompetence, technological illiteracy, or lack of adequate preparation. The most likely answer is a lack of adequate preparation, combined with a failure to follow good advice.

Reforming the system

Despite the massive technological failures, it can be argued that their main impact was a significant delay in reporting the results, not the integrity of the election itself. Importantly, the physical count of votes was the final and official record of the election. The manual voter register worked well to identify voters at the polling station level. No vote count was finalised at the polling station level without agreement of the presiding officer and political party agents. This process was repeated again as all presiding officers reported their numbers to the reporting officer in full view of political party agents and observers at the constituency level. All marked and unused ballots were locked into the transparent tally boxes with final numbers. Those boxes were tracked from polling station level to the constituency level, and eventually flown to Bomas to ensure that the final vote was correct.

The idea that manual ballots trump electronic systems is widely accepted internationally. A symposium on Voting, Vote Capture, and Vote Counting [PDF] was held at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in June 2004 in the wake of the counting failures in the Bush vs Gore presidential race in the US. At that event, scholars indicated that best practices for a secure voting system include a hybrid system that includes paper for audit and an electronic system for speed and flexibility. Ironically, their study noted that digital systems can actually produce more complex failure modes and concluded that paper ballots, carefully tracked through a custody chain, remain necessary to ensure accurate voting outcomes. The Kenyan election of 2013 illustrates those conclusions well.

The Kenyan election of 2013 can teach scholars, and observers of democratisation numerous lessons. First, a completely successful election in Kenya as well as other parts of Africa depends on large part on processes with high levels of transparency, consensus, and a careful chain of custody of votes. Second, technology must be carefully tested far in advance of elections, and care should be taken to identify weaknesses. Third, governments and civil society can work together to create independent institutions with clear rules, and well-trained voting officials. Finally, the 2010 Kenyan Constitution has helped to create institutions and laid out rules to promote democracy, which has already led to improved electoral outcomes.

Since the passage of Kenya’s Constitution in 2010, many of Kenya’s democratic institutions have been strengthened. The judiciary has improved, and civil society and international observers such as the Carter Center were invited to observe the 2013 elections. In essence, although we have seen a failure in information technology, we have seen a huge improvement in Kenya’s democratic capacity. Techne – the root of the word technology – means craft or art. As used by the ancient Greeks, techne meant the knowledge required to get the job done. To the extent that Kenyan institutions have developed the knowledge needed to run a successful election, they are, themselves, a form of political technology.

The last test of this election lies in the hands of the Kenyan Supreme Court. Domestic and international observers will be looking to see if the Supreme Court can make a decision that enhances citizens’ trust in both the electoral process and the nation’s institutions. The decision by the Kenyan Supreme Court to re-tally of results from 22 polling stations is an important step towards building this trust. Finally, for this election to truly be a success, the world will be watching to see how the Kenyan citizenry, media, and political process handle the court’s final judgment – regardless of who becomes Kenya’s president.

Dr Warigia Bowman holds a doctorate in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy. She has taught in Kenya at Kabarak University, and at the American University in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution. She is currently an Assistant Professor at the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas. Her research focuses on the intersection of information technology and democracy in East Africa and North Africa. She was an accredited elections observer during the 2013 Kenyan election.

Brian Munyao Longwe is a Kenyan technology professional with over 20 years experience. He has been at the forefront of the development of critical internet infrastructure on the African continent, including the establishment of AfriNIC, KeNIC, and Internet Exchange Points in Kenya, Uganda, DR Congo, Tanzania, Rwanda, Mozambique as well as Thailand, Singapore and Nepal. He is currently an independent consultant and spends most of his time developing and promoting linkages between the technology community, government and the nascent startup ecosystem.