The proposition by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) to introduce Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) is an important and welcome development
It will be a major transformation in the conduct of elections in Zimbabwe, which for a long time have been seriously affected by inefficiency, inaccuracy, unreliability and unfairness, all of which have undermined their credibility. In adopting BVR, Zimbabwe will join a growing and progressive trend across the continent and around the world.
BVR systems are based on biometrics — a science which uses human biological features for purposes of identifying or authenticating the identity of an individual.
The finger print is the most common biometric feature but other could be the eyes, facial image or the voice, all of which are unique to the individual.
The use of the BVR system will mean the capturing of a particular biometric feature, e.g. the finger print or facial image of every voter, storing it in an automated system, and when the individual attends on polling day, he or she will be identified by their finger print or facial image.
This will replace the current manual system which relies on the national identification (ID) number and ID picture for purposes of authenticating the identity of the voter on polling day. Under the current system, when a person registers to vote, they must supply their national ID and on polling day, their identity will be verified against that ID. This manual system is slow, inefficient and fraught with risks of duplicate registrations and double-voting.
It is harder to prevent impostors from abusing the system. Such problems have seriously undermined the reliability and credibility of previous elections, not just in Zimbabwe but in other countries. This explains the search across many countries for new and better systems of voter registration, which are more secure and accurate.
In this regard, many States have increasingly turned to biometric voter registers to promote fair and credible elections which minimise fraud and other malpractices. This in turn enhances the integrity of the electoral system and supports the realisation of a better democracy. People need to trust their leaders, but this also depends on their trust in electoral systems used to choose them.
BVR systems have gained favour because of a number of merits. They are the best systems to prevent duplicate registrations. They are also easy to use when registering and identifying voters. They are more inclusive and promote a quick and efficient process of voting. They are also easy to search, analyse and audit.
They help to prevent double or multiple voting, as the BVR system relies on unique physical features of each individual. When the system works well, it is very effective and efficient.
This is not to say BVR systems are perfect. Like any other system, they do have challenges which require care and contingency measures. The initial cost of investing in BVR technology is high, however, this is softened by the cost-effectiveness of the system in the long run. There can also be problems if the false acceptance rate is high whereby a person is wrongly accepted by the system.
This could open a way for double-voting and other malpractices. The same applies if the false rejection rate is high, whereby properly registered voters are rejected by the system. Environmental factors, such as humidity, may affect the operation of the system where it fails to work properly due to changes in conditions. Systems breakdowns, such as what happened in Kenya during their elections in 2013, could also cause problems.
However, while there are potential weaknesses, the benefits of BVR outweigh the problems. In any event, the electoral authorities ought to take measures to minimise the risks as well as have contingency measures to apply in case of a systems breakdown. For this reason, BVR can capture various pieces of data, including finger prints, facial images and ID numbers, which can be used as alternative identifiers in case the system does not work properly.
In the case of Zimbabwe, the Zec should proceed to take action now given that the elections are scheduled for 2018, which is only two years away. Adopting BVR requires training of vast numbers of election officials both for registration and for implementing and operating the system on polling day.
The 2013 elections were marred by irregularities and even the African Union and Southern Africa Development Community observer missions recommended that voter registration and the voters’ roll must be attended to and rectified as they were in an unsatisfactory state. During that election, the electoral authorities had completely failed to avail the electronic voters’ roll as required by law.
However, in the past, voter registration and the voters’ roll were conducted and controlled by the Registrar-General. Now, however, both are now under the control of the Zec, following the new Constitution adopted in 2013. This is an important opportunity for the Zec to make a fresh start, and establish a credible voter registration system and a clean and reliable voters’ roll.
This will not only enhance Zec’s standing in the eyes of the voting public, but it will also improve the integrity of the entire electoral system. Zec should invest in processes that build trust with key electoral stakeholders, demonstrate independence and ensure that the electoral process is adequately resourced (financial and human capacity).