Saturday, 27 April 2013

The "democratic panacea" – elections and the McCormick spectrum

The parable of James McCormick involved, if you remember, turning $20 toys into £27,000 security devices. As reported by the Telegraph, we are meant to believe that Mr McCormick "fooled police forces, the military and governments around the world into buying fake bomb-detection kits".


Have you ever tried to fool "police forces, the military and governments around the world"?

How stupid do you think they are in Iraq, Kenya, Egypt, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, China, South Africa, Mexico, the UN/Lebanon, Belgium and Georgia?

Energetic man that he is, these are all countries where Mr McCormick is said to have operated and the chances are that his magic only works if the officials in all those countries want to be fooled.

Or to put it another way, "state procurement has always been a favourite method of corrupt enrichment". That's the way Michela Wrong puts it, writing in last week's Spectator, about the recent elections in Kenya.

Ms Wrong is the experienced Africa hand who has spotted another case like McCormick's of officials promising the solution-at-a-stroke to a raft of problems by the judicious use of technology. "I suddenly realised I was watching a fad hitting its stride: the techno-election as democratic panacea", she says.

What she has identified is the advent in Kenya, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal, Somaliland and Ghana (with Mali, Togo and maybe Zimbabwe to follow) of the biometric registration of electors, electronic voting, telecommunications and automated counting, all in the name of modern democracy.

After the Kenyan election, Ms Wrong says, "EU and Commonwealth election monitors hailed the system as a marvel of its kind, an advance certain to be rolled out across the rest of Africa and possibly Europe, too. The enthusiasm was baffling, because almost none of it worked".

No more dead people voting, no more vote-early-and-vote-often. Now elections can be clean and accurate, and the result incontestable. That's the theory. So goes the sales pitch.

But in the event, the mooncalf monitors are wrong. Their verdict is nothing but wishful thinking. Thumb prints, Ms Wrong tells us, couldn't be recognised by the biometric equipment, batteries ran out on laptops, the server doing all the counting crashed and there was no backup.

The techno-election may promise a clean electoral register, one-man-one-vote and real-time counting. But that misses the point. Ms Wrong quotes Jonathan Bhalla from the Africa Research Institute think tank: "In Sierra Leone, for example, most rigging isn’t done by over-voting, it’s done by sending thugs round to scare voters away. So having a clean register doesn’t make a huge difference".

That may be true today. But tomorrow?

Young men assuming that they have a traditional job for life as a thug may be disappointed.

Fixing a techno-election may soon be more to do with cracking the digital security systems, injecting ghost voters into the register with what look like authentic biometrics and an authentic biography and, most important, an authentic-looking vote. Either that, or it may simply involve eavesdropping – changing votes after they've been cast but before they're counted.

The techno-election isn't magic. It won't definitely turn a crooked polity into a fair democracy. It may simply automate the corruption, gentrify it, make it more efficient and, in the process, take jobs away from large numbers of healthy and aggressive young men and give them to a few weedy mathematicians, cryptographers  and telecommunications engineers instead.

You can follow the story of biometrics in Africa and elsewhere on where each contract signed is diligently recorded. Kenya alone gets 180 mentions there. Take a look. Then decide. What do you think? Where does the techno-election lie on the McCormick spectrum? Is it magic? Or science.

And just to go back to where we started – are the strongmen who hold techno-elections fools? No. The inordinately expensive computer systems required tend to be paid for, in Africa at least, out of development aid money.


Added 29 April 2013
Highly recommended:
The Daily Nation, 16 March 2013
The many questions IEBC needs to clear with Kenyans over elections
(IEBC = Kenya's Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission)

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