ANALYSIS: Did the IEC purchase low quality marking pens to cut costs?

2019-05-09 14:10
IEC voting station. (Duncan Alfreds, News24, file)
IEC voting station. (Duncan Alfreds, News24, file)

On the face of it, the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) got a really good deal when it purchased the indelible marking pens for the 2019 elections.

News24 understands that the amount per pen which the commission paid was less than the amount paid in the 2016 local government elections.

And they were able to purchase more pens – 167 000 – for the 2019 election than for the previous election, at a lower cost. 

There appears to be no problem with the bidding process at all, or the company who supplied the pens. 

So on the face of it, the purchase of the marking pens appears to have gone well for the IEC. 

But there is only one problem: the marking ink rubs off. 

The purple ink mark is a critical safeguard against voter fraud, and it is specifically supposed to stain the finger for several days so that voters cannot vote twice.

The IEC has reportedly received several formal complaints about this, with concerns that voters may have been able to vote twice.

IEC commissioner Mosotho Moepya told Eyewitness News that there were at least eight other checks in place to guard against voter fraud, but this has done little to appease the concerns of political parties. 

Ultimately, the tender documents show that there is no way the winning bidder should have been able to supply ink that rubs off. It is seemingly clear that the pens provided to the IEC did not meet these standards, and eyewitness accounts of this abounded on Wednesday.

READ: Voters must make their mark, says IEC as it sends a warning to disgruntled South Africans

From the documents seen by News24, it is also clear that the IEC would have had to have known about the poor quality of the pens before the election.

It raises the question: did the IEC skimp on quality in order to cut costs?

It is a tender that goes out often – the bid documents state that the ink has a shelf life of about six months and so the stock needs to be replenished regularly. For this election, the tender was advertised in May 2017.

The tender bid specifications for the 2017 round of bidding specifically state that the winning bidder must provide a pen that makes a stain that will not easily be removed for seven days.

These are some of the other requirements:

-          The pens must create a "permanent" localised stain on the finger/nail of a voter when applied;

-          "Permanent" means a mark easily visible for a period of at least seven days;

-          The stain must be immediate, must dry within 30 seconds of application and must not require any specialised action in order to be achieved;

-          The indelible finger marking ink pens must be a unique ink with an inherent ability to withstand removal by washing, rubbing, or other mechanical means, after application.

Quality of product is the issue

The bidding documents state that the IEC wanted to see at least two samples of the product from prospective suppliers before the tender would be awarded. An industry expert, who has vast experience in elections procedures both locally and abroad, who tested one of the samples, said the ink was below par.

"Mine (the ink mark) came off in the shower," said the expert.

The issue, he said, was the active ingredient in the pens: silver nitrate. If the concentrate of silver nitrate is too low, the quality of the ink is reduced.

There are other reasons why the ink could wash off, he added, such as if it is not properly applied or if the fingers are oily or dirty. He said ideally, officials should wipe the fingers of voters before applying the ink.

But ultimately, the quality of the product is the issue.

It shows in the numbers.

The winning bidder, who News24 has not named until they have been given an opportunity to comment, quoted R2 683 442 for the contract.

IEC under massive resource constraints 

At less than R20 per pen, it was a steal for the IEC – cheaper than what it paid for the previous election's pens, and closer to what it paid in the 2014 elections, per pen.

Then there is the silver price. There was almost a full dollar's rise in the price of silver between 2015 and 2017. Technically, the cost of the pens should have increased on that basis alone. But it didn't.

The source said it was impossible to produce the same quality pen at that price.

The IEC was under massive resource constraints for this election – it needed an additional R300m to run the election, as chairperson Sy Mamabolo told The Sowetan last year.

But National Treasury could not provide the money, with the national fiscus being extremely constrained.

The IEC did not respond to several immediate requests for comment late on Wednesday night and early on Thursday morning.

News24 called the communications office twice late on Wednesday night and sent a text message to an office, and tried to call the IEC spokesperson Kate Bapela thrice on Thursday morning.

News24 also sent a text message to her and sent questions to the IEC's media queries email address. News24 will update the story when they have responded. 

The winning bidder was also not immediately available for comment and the story will be updated to reflect their views when they are able to respond.

Find everything you need to know about the 2019 National and Provincial Government Elections at our News24 Elections site, including the latest news and detailed, interactive maps for how South Africa has voted over the past 3 elections. Make sure your News24 app is updated to access all our elections coverage in one place.

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