Kenya's Biometric Voter Registration: New Solution, New Problems

Kenya's much-awaited biometric voter registration is expected to help curb the fraudulent practices of manipulation and vote rigging that were prevalent in the previous manual registration system, but the new system is causing new problems and challenges for the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

On Monday 12 November 2012, the Electoral and Boundaries Commission of Kenya (IEBC) plans to start the biometric voter registration (BVR) process in an effort to develop a new voter’s roll for the upcoming general elections scheduled for 4 March 2013. The new voter registration system requires eligible voters to go through a biometric analysis, which, it is hoped, will help curb some of the fraudulent practices of manipulation and vote rigging that were prevalent in the previous manual registration system. The system is expected to capture specific information such as fingerprints, facial features, name, gender and identification number. The IEBC wants to create a new electronic register and this means that all those older than 18 years and who want to participate in the forthcoming elections will have to register afresh.

With only a few months to the Kenyan general elections, however, the process of acquiring the biometric kits has been riddled with controversies that threaten to derail confidence in the voter’s roll. From an initial cancelled tender process owing to disputes over the quality of the work of four short-listed companies in July this year, to an agreement between the governments of Kenya and Canada that settled on Morpho Canada Inc. as the supplier of the BVR kits, there has been confusion over the delivery of the 15 000 BVR kits amid allegations of political sabotage. Some have started doubting the IEBC’s independence, capacity and functionality while others have criticised it for allowing politicians to interfere in its work. The IEBC has, however, insisted that it is ready to conduct the elections and that while its main concern is the delay in the supply of the kits, it is willing to revert to manual registration if necessary. In a meeting of the relevant agencies involved in the acquisition of BVR kits on October 24, the government and the IEBC maintained that all of them were committed to ensuring that everything was in place for the March 2013 elections. There is, however, still uncertainty as to whether the kits will arrive in the country before 5 November 2012, which is the deadline set by the IEBC.

With all the ensuing intrigues, concerns are also mounting about whether there will be enough time to train staff to deal with possible BVR technological challenges such as verifying mismatches of biometric data and dealing with system failures as a result of environmental problems, among others. That said, the BVR is not a cure-all for fraud-related election problems. The case of the November 2011 elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is illustrative. The central African country adopted BVR technology but this did not prevent questions over the integrity of the voter register and allegations of fraud and ballot stuffing in the election process. Indeed, Kenya’s Minister of Immigration, Otieno Kajwang, has cautioned against the implementation of the BVR system in the next election due to its complexity, saying, ‘Forget about thumbprints, forget about photographs, those are complex things that need a lot of time, a lot of patience and a lot of testing.’ In spite of all these challenges, the BVR system if properly implemented can help reduce the inefficacies of manual paper registration and eliminate Kenya’s perpetual problem of ‘ghost’ voters.

On record, the IEBC (the successor to the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK), which had been accused of botching the country’s 2007 elections) has done relatively well so far in conducting a successful national constitutional referendum, as well as 15 parliamentary and 60 civic by-elections. There are, nonetheless, a number of factors external to the IEBC that could threaten the credibility of the voter registration process and possibly the entire election. Key among them is the security situation in various parts of the country, which has deteriorated recently. Previously, the scenario of worsening security was a common feature of elections, often accompanied by speculation that some politicians had deliberately triggered it in order to displace voters from ‘hostile’ communities. The recent clashes in the Tana Delta between the Pokomo and Orma communities have been interpreted in this light. There is also the security question deriving from the secessionist Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), whose members have threatened to disrupt voter registration and the voting process at the Kenyan coast unless its secessionist claims are addressed. Insecurity is compounded by the delayed resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the 2007 post-election violence.

With the above challenges threatening to derail the election process, the IEBC is putting on a brave face and maintaining that whether it adopts manual or electronic voter registers, it will register the estimated 18 million Kenyans that are expected to participate in the election. This includes the Kenyans in diaspora who have been criticising the IEBC for not providing enough polling centres in their diverse geographical locations. The IEBC has defended itself arguing that there is a dearth of sufficient and reliable data on the Kenyans in diaspora and their locations. It has also ruled out the idea of postponing the elections to August next year, an inclination that was gaining currency among some politicians.

Overall, one of the key weaknesses of the 2007 general elections lay in the voter registration and vote counting processes. It is for this reason that the Independent Review Commission (IREC) on the 2007 general elections, otherwise known as the Kriegler Commission, recommended the adoption of a new voter registration procedure, hence the proposal to adopt the BVR system for the 2013 election. The need for credible voter registration is undeniable. However, while the margin of error in manipulating the BVR system is minimal compared to manual voter registration, there are still a number of obstacles relating to time, bureaucracy in acquiring BVR kits and security-related challenges that stand in the way of the IEBC and which may undermine the election process. Fundamentally, voter registration needs to be simple, clear and user-friendly to people with different levels of education. Studies from countries such as Nigeria, the DRC, Ghana and Cameroon that have used the BVR system show that the main challenge is the possibility of equipment malfunctioning. The challenges in operationalising the BVR process will increase with the narrowing of the timeframe to the elections. Unfortunately, any deviation from the BVR procedures now will result in questions around motives and integrity that will threaten the credibility of the forthcoming elections. It is therefore important that the IEBC reduces the emerging doubts and possible disenfranchisement among voters by addressing concerns over the delay in procuring BVR kits and allegations over efforts to scuttle proper management of the elections. The IEBC should not let the delay jeopardise the registration process and should ensure that the process restores confidence among Kenyan voters. The integrity of the voter register will be a vital contribution to the legitimacy of the March 2013 elections.

Mashaka Lewela and Emmanuel Kisiangani, Research Intern and Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Nairobi

Related content