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Electronic voting is inevitable for Zambia

In his letter to Electoral Commission of Zambia chief electoral officer Patrick Nshindano, Socialist Party president Dr Fred M’membe urges the Commission to seriously and urgently consider introducing electronic voting systems before the 2026 elections.

“Electronic voting technology intends to speed the counting of ballots, reduce the cost of paying staff to count votes manually and can provide improved accessibility for disabled voters. Also in the long term, expenses are expected to decrease. Results can be reported and published faster.

And it is important to keep in mind that electronic voting isn’t online voting – it’s simply a faster way of tabulating votes. Countries as big as Brazil and India, with huge populations and complex political systems, shifted to electronic ballot technology many years ago. I know we have been led to distrust anything electronic in voting. But spending some time learning about international experience might be helpful to change this perception. In India and in Brazil, results have been very positive so far. Brazil has about 150 million voters. In the 2018 presidential election, they announced the winner only two hours and 16 minutes after the polls were closed. By that time, they had already counted 96.7 per cent of all votes, cast all over the country. Brazilians adopted electronic ballots for the first time in 1996. And no fraud has been confirmed so far. They run public tests every electoral year,” wrote Dr M’membe. “In India, voting machines have been part of the electoral process since 2001. They were used in all general and state assembly elections…And last year South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) introduced electronic voting in its local government elections. The IEC described these local government elections as the most ‘technologically-advanced’. Polling place electronic systems are also being used in Pakistan, Australia, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Namibia, the Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Switzerland, Panama, Venezuela, and the Philippines, among other countries. It’s probably time to seriously consider how effective electronic balloting is in other countries, and consider adopting it here. We have enough time to master it before the 2026 elections if we start now.”

Fred’s proposal is appealing and the ECZ must apply itself to it in the most honest and farsighted manner.

The world has changed and soon enough the system we have relied on in Zambia, for conducting our elections, will not only be stale but dangerous to employ on many fronts. Consider the impact of the Coronavirus in the manner our elections were conducted in August 2021. And already, some countries – particularly the European Union – are going paperless in a bid to curb climate change. Can we carry on with massive paper ballots? How about the cost of printing these ballots, transportation and personnel required to manually tabulate the results? Then comes time it takes to authenticate and announce final results!

Equally, we have been having the same complaints of electoral fraud or vote tempering for decades now! But most importantly, government at all levels is advocating going digital – smart banking, smart agriculture, e-commerce. For how long is the ECZ going to shy away from revolutionising our voting system? We can start low – in local government by-elections and escalate it to parliamentary level in readiness for the 2026 general polls. The way we see it, this is inevitable – we can delay it however we want but electronic voting is a necessary devil, which we’ll have to adopt some time soon.

In a write up for Stanford University on electronic voting, Gloria Lin and Nicole Espinoza argued that, “Elections are unique. They change the fate of nations, influence participation and activism in politics, and deeply affect the lives and attitudes of citizens. Electrons demonstrate a clear importance for our society – so not only must election systems work; the people must believe that they work. Accordingly, ethical concerns have become one of the most central elements of the debate surrounding electronic voting. At times, it seems even that the ethics are the most important factor of discussion – influencing technical concerns, et cetera. Despite concerns about Electronic Voting Machines, however, companies continue to develop them and countries continue to adopt them at amazing speed. There must be a large incentive to undertake such risk. We must ask: What are the benefits of electronic voting?

Electronic voting most directly affects two large parties: the voters, and the government.

Theoretically, in order for electronic voting to be instituted, there must be a significant advantage (greater than the costs) to one or both of these groups. Ideally, voters gain a better voting experience at the polls, are more confident that their vote will be correctly counted, and are able to vote more easily and efficiently. The government is potentially able to increase voter turnout, reduce costs, increase voter confidence, renew interest in the political system (and voting), and ensure the most democratic process possible. One of the significant benefits of this new system is the possibility for increased efficiency. With Electronic Voting Machines voters can submit their votes, and be reasonably confident that their vote will count (namely avoiding the “hanging chad” problem that handicapped the 2000 presidential elections in the United States). New Electronic Voting Machines can also stop voters from common election faults, such as picking too many or no candidates, also thereby increasing the general effectiveness of voting. Electronic voting via email also holds the possibility of increasing the ease of voting for citizens who are otherwise geographically isolated from election centres… ‘Eventually electronic voting may be a viable solution to increasing voter participation in governmental elections.’ This potential to increase voter participation, either from increased accessibility, decreased cost, decreased difficulty, or any other method clearly has its benefits to the larger community. Electronic voting also has the ability to reduce fraud, by eliminating the opportunity for ballot tampering. However, if paper ballots are printed out as a backup in case of a recount necessity, this threat remains. Michael Shamos of Carnegie Mellon University, who is in favour of electronic voting but ardently against paper machines, argues that ‘Paper voting records have shown themselves for the past 250 years to be horribly insecure and easy to manipulate. In practice they have so many flaws that they are as bad as punched-card voting at its worst.’ But if paper ballots are eliminated, so is the possibility to distort them as a means of election deception.

One thing to consider is that the success of electronic voting rests directly in the ability of the Electronic Voting Machines to function in the way the voting district needs and prefers. Some of the greatest features of Electronic Voting Machines may still be to come with developments in software and mechanical functionality, especially those that would ensure accuracy, privacy and verifiability.”

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