Digital technologies aimed at improving the reliability of election results have become more widely used around the world over the past two decades. In African countries, almost all recent general elections have used different types of digital technologies.
These include biometric voter registration, smart card readers, voter cards, optical mark recognition, direct electronic registration and electronic transmission of results. The main reason for their use is to contain electoral fraud. It also promotes the credibility of elections.
Nigeria started using digital technology in the electoral process in 2011. The Independent National Electoral Commission introduced the automated fingerprint identification system to prevent voters from registering more than once.
The permanent voter card and smart card reader were introduced in the 2015 general election. At the polling station, a voter’s identity is verified by comparing their biometric data to the voter card. The voter is then allowed to vote and the votes are counted manually after the voting is complete.
The reliability of these devices has caused some controversy among Nigerians, but their use in the 2015 and 2019 general elections has enhanced the legitimacy of the electoral process. The election results were better accepted, with fewer objections to the results.
There has, however, been no systematic study of how smart card readers have helped improve the credibility and legitimacy of elections in Nigeria. This is what I decided to explore based on the case of the 2019 general elections. My study relied mainly on documentary sources and agency reports to provide qualitative results.
My research revealed that digital innovations are improving elections in Nigeria as they reduce instances of electoral fraud and irregularities. But there are still some disadvantages affecting their effectiveness.
I conclude that the issues are not operational issues related to non-functioning machines. Rather, they reflect problems in the management of elections.
Nigeria held elections in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019. The results all raised concerns about their credibility. They have been marred by embezzlement and violence. Although the 2011 election was fairer than before, disputes over the outcome sparked post-election violence.
Old worries linger
While digitization offers great prospects, some political actors remain skeptical. In July 2021, the Senate rejected the provision of the electoral law relating to the introduction of electronic voting and the electronic transmission of results.
These innovations would be a step beyond the voter card and smart card reader. Both aim to reduce errors in vote counting and gather results more quickly.
The Senate said electronic voting was likely to compromise the credibility of the election, as did the malfunctioning of some card readers in the 2015 and 2019 elections.
The rejection was based on the National Communication Commission’s comment that only half of the polling stations could transmit election results.
The federal government also claimed that digital transmission of election results could not be considered in the 2023 general election because 473 of 774 local governments lacked internet access.
The Senate later reversed its decision after a public outcry.
Push to digitization
But the electoral commission persisted in its call for digitization. And civil society organizations have shown support because of the prospect of reducing electoral fraud and improving transparency. They also lobbied for electronic voting and transmission of election results.
Similarly, the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, which brings together over 70 civil society organizations, has supported the use of digital technology.
Successes and limits
I found through my research that the application of digital technology has, to some extent, improved the quality of elections in Nigeria. This is an improvement over previous elections characterized by fraud and manipulation.
However, there are some drawbacks due to technological failure and structural and systemic issues. One of the systemic problems is that the electoral commission lacks autonomy in terms of financing. Others are the lack of transparency and accountability and the lack of security during elections. These have cast doubt on the integrity of the elections and raised concerns about the reliability of digital technology.
It’s not surprising. Studies have shown that the results of digital technology in elections are mixed.
For example, during the 2019 elections in Nigeria, there were instances of malfunctioning smart card readers in some voting centers. This delayed voter accreditation at many polling stations.
In addition, there was no uniform national emergency plan. Election officials allowed manual voting in some voting units. In other cases, they allowed the use of “incident forms,” a form filled out by election officials on behalf of a voter before being allowed to vote. This happened when smart card readers could not authenticate the voter’s card. A lot of time was lost in the process, which resulted in an extension of the voting period. Many of these incidents occurred, particularly during the presidential and legislative elections of March 2015.
Despite these challenges, I have found that the application of digital technology since 2015 has slightly improved the overall quality of elections in Nigeria. It reduced the incidence of double registration, electoral fraud and violence and restored some degree of confidence in the electoral process.
The path to follow
Systemic and institutional problems persist. I have found that the autonomy of the electoral commission, inadequate technological infrastructure and security are concerns in Nigeria. The same goes for trust in digital technology among politicians and voters.
These should be addressed by the government undertaking more reforms of the electorate and improving the technological infrastructure. In addition, the National Assembly should review the electoral law, in particular its security component. I think if the security is reinforced during the elections, the digitization will go better.
Likewise, concerted efforts must be made in the face of the risk of digital failure. And poll workers should receive proper training on how to use the technology.