Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Biometrics to be used in Zambia’s elections

By Brenda Zulu

2006 elections in Zambia will for the first time use an electronic system whereby biometric information is loaded onto a database as it is surly more accurate and less prone to manipulation than the current practice of verification of some form of identification document.

Biometrics is the use of fingerprints, palm prints or iris scans to provide an accurate identification and verification of a person.

A tour of the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) found workers scanning and loading information of aspiring candidates onto the data base. Most of the work was almost finished as all voters’ right hand thumb finger prints had already been scanned. The ECZ was also found to be producing Geographical Information System (GIS) maps for all constituencies in the country as this previously done by the surveyors department. GIS is a system for creating, storing, analyzing and managing spatial data and associated attributes.

Mpundu Sholomo Mfula the Information Technology (IT) Deputy Director at ECZ, said biometrics was being used to add value to the election process in Zambia. He however said that the traditional method of using an identity document to verify the identity of a voter could in the past not catch up with people who have two registration cards as these were allowed to vote.

He said that this was the reason why voters where asked to leave their right finger print in the voters registration books so that these could be scanned and provide a more accurate way of verifying identification. He added that cheating on identity was not possible with biometrics in place as everyone only has one finger print including identical twins.

Under voter registration, the ECA has set up a database of registered voters using biometric indicators which is an efficient and accurate means of identification.

Mfula indicated that the 2006 voters register was now a permanent register because all the information is stored in a data base and that of course when it is election time there will still be registration for those who have moved from one constituency to another and also there will be need to accommodate new people who will be registering as voters.

Mfula also said that after elections there will also be an Audit trail. This will help skeptics overcome fears of computer error by producing a paper output which would allow a full manual recount if the results are contested.

The tour at ECZ also showed Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) which has stored over 4 million scanned finger prints of registered voters in Zambia. ECZ Deputy Director of Finance Mwelwa Chibichabo said the equipment was purchased from Waymark Info Tech in South Africa at the cost about 13$USmillion.
Waymark has conducted elections in several African countries which include Tanzania, Nigeria and South Africa.

Mfula explained that in relation to Result Management, ECZ was now connected to ZAMTEL through a radio link to all 72 Districts and will also be connected to Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), and Mulungushi International Conference Center where the counting of votes will be done.

Should we not be using technology to enhance the effectiveness for how we implement the very cornerstone of democracy, voting to choose our political leaders?

Mfula said that apart from connection to the national grid problems, there was need for people’s mindsets against technology to change in order for Zambia to reach that stage of voting electronically.

Linda Mphande Nglazi a voter in Mandevu constituency in Lusaka said she could not trust electronic voting because of power failures and possible accusations of rigging elections as people are already used to manual system of voting and counting.

She however observed that in any system of elections in a democratic environment, electronic or otherwise, dictates that: voters need to register to be eligible to vote, each voter need to be identified as an eligible voter, that the voters vote is kept secret, that the voter only votes once, voters have access to polling stations during the period of the elections, that the votes are accurately recorded and counted and that an audit trail is kept in order to verify the accuracy of results if necessary.

Aubrey Andrew Mwelwa a voter in Nkana constituency in Kitwe on the Copperbelt was in favour of Zambia considering e-voting in future so that even when one was away from his constituency, he could vote from any point and that this could also cater for people in Diaspora.

“Without thinking twice Zambia should consider going e-voting in future. The direct benefits of e-voting are ease of voter registration, accuracy of voter identification, accuracy of recording and counting of votes, speed of processing voters through a polling station, speed of counting votes and publication of results and ease or recount and verification.”

Mwelwa said it was also essential that all voters have access to polling stations. “Access should not be limited to geographic location but should also take account of hours of operation and the length of time it takes to pass through the process.”