06 May 2019

    James Francis

    Voting in the digital age

    As South Africa goes to the polls, how does technology help you make your mark?

    South Africa has a remarkable distinction that many other places cannot claim: since the first democratic election in 1994, there have been no rigged major elections. Some minor municipal elections have on occasion raised flags, but there is no reason to believe the country’s elections are not free, fair and transparent.

    The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) does a sterling job and sets high standards with its speed and transparency. It uses technology in creative ways. But you’d be surprised to learn it relies on many human activities as well, using paper and pens. Old school? Yup, but there are good reasons for this.

    How we vote today

    It may seem strange that at the part where we all participate, the election process is still very manual and paper-based. In an age of computers and smartphones, this all seems outdated. But while electronic voting or e-voting is becoming more common across the world, there are benefits to paper ballots.

    For one, it’s much more satisfying to make your mark on something physical. But it also helps keep the elections safe from cybercriminals. IEC chairperson Glen Mashinini recently told the media that physically handled and counted ballots can’t be hacked. All management of ballots is done in front of representatives of the different parties. But there are parts of the voting process that are already electronic, such as the barcode on your ID being scanned.

    At the back of the election systems though it is a different matter…

    The IEC’s technology

    The fear of rigged elections in modern stable democracies such as South Africa is being replaced by concerns over hacking. As mentioned, it’s one reason why we still vote on paper and not with e-votes. But once votes are tallied and confirmed, they are added to a vast electronic system run by the IEC. Saying it is not impossible that someone will try and hack its systems, the IEC has been upping security and monitoring. If something goes wrong, people are quickly alerted.

    The IEC embraces technology. Among its many responsibilities, the IEC maintains the Voter’s Roll, which is the database of SA’s 20 million+ registered voters. A voter must register at the location they intend to vote at on election days - those registrations ensure that the IEC can prepare in each location and also helps it spot problems. For example, if a station with 2,000 registered voters produces 3,000 ballots, IEC officials know something is wrong. Since such information will eventually become publicly available other parties can also check for errors. This helps keeps the local elections free and accepted by all.

    This is the same system that provides the election data everyone taps into. It also can tell you of your registration status online or via an SMS. A new feature this year is an online portal where political parties can submit candidates and pay their fees, things you could once only do manually. Other future features can include biometric systems for easy registration and social media information.

    But the IEC’s election technology does not just end with its own systems. Recently it and Media Monitoring Africa launched The Real 411, a site where citizens can report and counter fake news around the elections. If you find yourself wondering if a rumour is true or not, this is the place to go to. Third parties can also access the election data through the IEC’s systems. An example of this is the excellent Wazimap, where you can go into individual neighbourhoods and see the election as well as census information.

    One day we might use smartphones to vote or perhaps the e-voting machines seen in places such as the United States. But these are controversial and some even lead to less trust in elections, the bedrock of democracy. Technology isn’t always the answer, but not is staying in the stone age! The IEC shows that it is possible to have both manual and digital systems work together. When South Africans head to the polls on 8 May, we can take pride in one of the world’s most trusted, transparent and forward-thinking election systems.

    Happy voting and don’t forget to make your mark!


    James Francis