Indelible ink vs biometrics - what the voting experts say

The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) says it's neither appropriate, nor cost effective, to introduce voting technology in the country at this stage.

However, IEC vice-chairperson Janet Love says this is not an absolute, but rather something the commission is continuously evaluating by working with colleagues from around the world.

"The IEC, actually on an ongoing basis, carries out various engagements with colleagues from different parts of the world, people who deal with voting technology, to try and assess the issues of things like the digital equipment for voting. There are various parts of the world that have attempted to use this with varying degrees of success.

"The technology there is not either appropriate or cost effective, but that's not something that is an absolute. It's something that we continuously refresh ourselves on and work with colleagues from different parts of the world," Love said at a post-election briefing on Thursday.

Love's comments were made in response to questions around the effectiveness of the indelible ink used to mark voters' thumbs in this week's general election.

The IEC announced an audit on Wednesday to check the extent of voter fraud after some political parties raised concerns about so-called "double voting".

The commission has acknowledged that it may have been possible for some voters to cheat the system and vote twice after removing the ink.

The concerns have also led to questions around whether or not biometrics should be used to verify the identities of voters at polling stations and whether technology should be introduced to replace paper ballots.

Biometrics - redundant or revolutionary?

Using indelible ink as a security measure is still widely practised in elections around the globe but has been replaced by biometrics mostly in developing and post-conflict countries in Africa and Asia.

Michael Yard, senior global election technology and cybersecurity advisor at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has spent more than 20 years working in this field.

Yard says while ink has "gone out of fashion", it hasn't been uniformly replaced with biometrics.

"Biometrics have been introduced mostly in countries where they don't have any existing type of identity documents or a civil registry. In countries that have a system in place that you can get a reliable ID, biometrics seem to be a bit redundant," he explains.

"It is primarily in developing countries and post-conflict countries. One of the things that I note often when doing presentations in countries that are considering it, is that you've got German companies, French, British and South African companies all providing biometric solutions for election commissions and Germany and France and the UK and South Africa don't use biometrics in their elections.

"Now why is that? The reason is that they don't really need to. They've got well-developed systems of identity. If you've got well-established ID cards, then biometrics is kind of an expensive, redundant process."

White paper on indelible ink in elections

Yard doesn't believe that this week's controversy around the poor quality ink in South Africa, should automatically mean a biometric system should be introduced.

"My basic feeling on that is well, my ink pen doesn't work so well, so let me go and buy a computer. If the ink is not working well, unless there are just objections to ink per say which happens in some places, the problem in South Africa seems to be that there is an inadequate percentage of silver nitrate.

"Ink has been used in a lot of different countries and usually pretty reliably and if it doesn't work, it's usually because they didn't get the right specifications in the ink or sometimes it's not stored well. It dries out.

"It seems that it would make a lot more sense first of all, to look at why the ink isn't working and if it's then an acceptable solution, then let's fix that problem. It's probably a lot less expensive to correct the problem with the ink than it is to spend millions on biometric equipment."

"The one incident might cast doubt on the whole system but now I would look at why the system didn't work. I would investigate and find out why. Are they not using the right type of ink? Is it because we're not storing it correctly?

"Is it because we're not providing the right training? Because, if you don't pay close attention to specifications and training and maintenance, biometrics can fail as well. So deal with the basics first and see if it's really a problem with the ink or with our systems and how we're procuring and using the ink."

As South Africans went to the polls on Wednesday, the independent elections organisation IFES released a white paper on the use of indelible ink in elections around the world.

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