Has the new voters register achieved its purpose? EC at crossroads

EC Chair, Mrs Jean Mensa

The Jean Mensa Electoral Commission (EC) made it known to all Ghanaians that the voters register used for the 2016 elections was not credible. They argued that the database was bloated with names of foreigners, minors etc. The panacea according to the EC was the acquisition of new biometric election management software with enhanced facial biometric features to go with an upgraded hardware and a Data Center to secure the data. This solution for a credible register was what the EC assured the country could be delivered within six months and Parliament voted money for this audacious exercise.  The EC was therefore to let the voters answer two key questions to ensure that a credible register is put in place. The first was “Are you who you claim to be?” and this went with the citizenship screening for the registration for which our biometrics were taken. The second was “Do I know who you are? And this is the exhibition of the compiled register which must be with our biometrics.

In an earlier article on EC’s de-duplication exercise, I raised some concerns about the possibility of data migration challenges in such a large-scale IT project within such a short time once the registration exercise was not conducted online and centralized. Undoubtedly, this approach has cost implications but if you think preventive cost is expensive try failure cost and in EC’s case, this goes beyond financial cost, since any action by the EC has implications on the foundation of the democracy of Ghana. Unfortunately, this failure cost which cannot be quantified is cropping up in the ongoing voters register exhibition exercise and no one knows how far it can go.

It is worrying that another fundamental IT management error is being done in this exhibition exercise which will have devastating effect on the actual voting day. If we are to take the voters exhibition as a “User Acceptance Test” then the EC should have simulated what is actually going to happen on the voting day in all polling stations by using the biometric verification equipment. It is a test to establish whether the actual hardware and election management software is technically ready and builds confidence in the system. This is not being done at least at the polling station where I had my name checked. It was just a manual register with my name in it. This is a recipe for disaster on voting day since technically one need not go with the voter’s card to be allowed to vote. Identification is in the form of the registered thumb print or face geometry of the individual. Once a “User Acceptance Test” has not been signed off the system is technically not ready to be deployed.

New systems are perfected over time so a few problems are expected but the challenge for the EC is the reasons it gave to discard the old register and the almost certain guarantee (assurance) it gave that this new system would mitigate the problems associated with the old one coupled with the assurance of the ability to deploy within six months. This has raised expectations and standards are high for the EC.

The EC seems to be making the rules as it goes along the way relying on its independence under Article 46 of the 1992 Constitution. Stakeholders for example should have known in advance that the exhibition was going to be a manual register so they can mitigate any operational risk they might envisage. This is change management and for acceptance the EC cannot rely on its independence under Article 46 of the 1992 Constitution to just do what it wants since its discretionary power is also subject to Article 296 of the same Constitution which states that the exercise of it must be fair, candid and not to be used arbitrarily, capriciously or be biased.

The reasons given by the EC to have a new voters register was to avoid multiple registration, duplicated names, bloated register, remove names of foreigners, data integrity by way of enhanced biometric verification and make sure only citizens register. Has this been achieved? The exhibition of the new register is showing that this time even citizens who registered are unable find their names which ordinarily can be expected but not on such a large scale. For example a whole polling station, Narang-Saago Primary School, in Binduri, the 444 citizens who registered at the polling station cannot find their names. How was the project managed? Not that the issues cannot eventually be resolved but there was no luxury of time to have undertaken such large scale IT project.

To quote the Electoral Commissioner, Mrs. Jean Mensa, “the Voters register is the bedrock on which credible elections rest. It is the foundation upon which the sovereign right of the people to choose their natural leaders is hinged.” She urged all parties to assist the EC in arriving at a comprehensive and complete register. The EC therefore must make sure that all stakeholders, namely; the political parties, civil society organizations and general citizenry to a large extent recognize that the EC project has indeed been successful and it is not for the EC alone to be the sole determinant of the success or otherwise. It is called user acceptance. The credibility of the process will have impact on the credibility of the results on December 7, 2020

In change management it is better to strategize democratically and implement autocratically when decision has been reached. Instead the EC seems to have adopted the approach of strategizing autocratically without listening to anybody and subsequently wants to implement democratically in the midst of impending issues which could have been avoided had they lent a “listening ear”. Constitutionally, an individual can refuse to go check the name in the exhibited register because Constitutionally the onus is on EC’s to make sure it has administratively done its job for the voter, a citizen, to exercise the Constitutional right under Article 42 of the 1992 Constitution. A valid voter’s card is proof of registration by the EC and the voter’s name must be in the register. If it is not on voting day, the onus is on the EC to make sure every citizen with the voter’s card issued by the EC votes. The citizen cannot be denied of this Constitutional right because of administrative lapses by the EC.

The advice to the political parties in the event that someone holding a voter’s card but unable to find the name in the final register on voting day, is to make sure that on voting day only those whose names are in the original end-of-day print-outs during the initial registration can still vote if their names are not appearing in the final register.  This must be agreed with the EC before the voting day. Indeed, everyone voting must have the name in that end-of- day initial registration print-out since that is what is being exhibited for verification.

The possible way forward for credibility and user acceptance is a new registration to be done and for which that decision should be made now. It is better to bring down an undesirable structure and build from scratch than to be making adjustments which will eventually collapse. Is it legally possible to go back to the old voters register? I doubt unless the EC and Supreme Court are willing to eat humble pie.  The EC is really at crossroads indeed. Our democracy is on a cliffhanger.

The author Dr. Kofi Anokye Owusu-Darko, holds an EMBA (IT Management) and an LLM (IT & Telecommunication)

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