ANALYSIS | The role of voting technology in enhancing democracy in South Africa

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The authors consider the challenges of e-voting
The authors consider the challenges of e-voting
OJ Koloti/Gallo Images via Getty Images

Maria Goyayi and Paul Kariuki take a look at the pros and cons of using technology in facilitating an election in the face of a pandemic.

As South Africa prepares for municipal elections amid a lethal wave of Covid-19, it is critical to explore the possibility of using technology in facilitating an election.

However, election amid the Covid-19 pandemic presents unique challenges. The reality imposed by Covid-19 is testing democratic infrastructures across the globe, requiring nations to balance the need for credible elections to gain legitimacy for effective governance while containing the devastating public health crisis.

Covid-19 a communicable disease thriving in crowded places and human proximity has increased the advocacy for digitalisation in most aspects of normal life activities, including the election. Digitising an election is a necessary and effective way to balance public health concerns and credible elections.

While the argument that technology can improve the credibility of elections is not new, the pandemic has hyped it with new attention and popularity within democratic spaces. An electronic voting system, limits crowds, and human contact, thereby allowing voters to exercise their rights and civic duties with relatively lower health risks.

Merits of technology 

South Africa is among the top African nations in technology use.

The presence of the overseas internet fibre cable and the proliferation of mobile and wireless technology presents numerous opportunities for digitalisation, thus paving the way for facilitating e-voting.

Mobile phones ownership and usage have penetrated rural areas. With Covid-19 becoming a reality that might be with us for a while, technology has its merits in adjusting the usual conduct of elections. The Covid-19 pandemic gives impetus for more nations to experiment with e-voting, a tool publicised as useful in the long term, both in containing the immediate spread of Covid-19 and also in ensuring electoral integrity.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) intends to launch a revamped public website and app for improved navigation and communications as well as a public reporting app for disinformation on social media in preparation for the upcoming election. This article thus provides insight into the successes and challenges associated with the use of technology in elections.

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Some of the merits of e-voting amid Covid-19 include its capacity to enhance voter registration by eliminating the challenges associated with the manual administration of an election. Moreover, in times of a health pandemic such as Covid-19, e-voting facilitates the participation of all citizens including the vulnerable ones such as the elderly, who may be fearful to go out and vote physically due to exposure to the virus.

Furthermore, e-voting facilitates transparency through real-time streaming of results from various counting centres, thereby easing anxiety for any anomalies associated with human or system errors such as multiple voting. Additionally, all elections stakeholders can follow an election closely as they receive information consistently and can interpret preliminary results, voting patterns, and any emerging electoral regional or party trends with minimum difficulties.  However, e-voting has its challenges. For instance, it can be misused to manipulate and undermine elections, thus creating an undue advantage, especially for incumbents.

Cost of technology 

Moreover, any technical glitches may undermine voters' trust in the process, thereby discouraging them from participating actively in such a process. Additionally, the cost of technologies can be prohibitive and therefore a major concern for the IEC in terms of affordability.  

Balancing the advantages of e-voting systems against concerns is a task that IEC and policymakers have to confront.

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The intersection of corruption, determination to win elections, geopolitical interests, and for-profit foreign entities with no social stake in the country is a deadly combination for the integrity of elections in SA. Elections are the heart of democracy; it is through elections that leadership required is recruited to champion policies and plans for improved collective conditions within the country and the international standing.

As Covid-19 rattles the world, unwittingly strengthening autocrats and bringing new elements of inequality, South Africa needs its best to survive and thrive through the upcoming elections. Technology can be a weapon and a shield, a powerful enabler, and a crippling agent. By deploying e-voting systems, we risk exacerbating the democratic regression spreading across SA if underlying structural problems remain unaddressed.

Proper preparation 

Issues like rebuilding social cohesion, cultural reforms on what it means to be in power, home-grown technological solutions, and the legal and regulatory frameworks must be addressed before deployment. Technology can is not a 'morally neutral good.' Its deployment only mirrors the intent and values of its makers and users, thus technology and elections can only be as good as the society that deploys and plans it.

Caution needs to be exercised to ensure proper preparations. IEC must collaborate with other stakeholders, including civil society, in laying a foundation for a credible election. Adopting e-voting systems is one thing; ensuring integrity and credibility of election is another thing.

- Maria Lauda Goyayi is a researcher at the School of Management, IT and Public Governance, UKZN. Dr. Paul Kariuki is the Executive Director of the Democracy Development Program (DDP). The views expressed are their own.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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