IEC puts tech to work to counter double voting

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 15 Mar 2024
The IEC is readying tech for the 2024 National and Provincial Elections.
The IEC is readying tech for the 2024 National and Provincial Elections.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) will deploy a custom business application to ensure members of the public don’t vote twice during the elections.

So says James Aphane, electoral operations manager at the IEC, in an interview with ITWeb in the run-up to the 2024 National and Provincial Elections.

South Africans will take to the polls on 29 May to elect the leadership of the seventh administration, in what is expected to be the most contested election in the last 30 years.

Aphane detailed how the IEC will deploy tech during the general election, revealing that a voters’ roll app will serve as an additional layer to the voter management devices (VMDs).

“It's going to be on the VMD itself. It's going to be a custom IEC application.

“The voters’ roll app – when we scan you – will tell us how many ballots you qualify for. We’ll issue you with a ballot and once we issue the ballot, it will mark you. So, if you’re going to try to vote somewhere else, it will tell the people who are operating the VMDs that you have already been issued ballots.

“If you’re issued ballots, we expect that you are going to use those ballots and vote, and leave them at the voting station. This is another layer to making sure we mark your name off the voters’ roll when you come to vote, and we also mark your finger with an indelible ink.”

The app will be live during the election process, with the IEC only making tweaks here and there. “Obviously, because the voting districts have changed, we're making sure it has the latest voting district datasets.”

James Aphane, electoral operations manager at the IEC.
James Aphane, electoral operations manager at the IEC.

The IEC retired some of the old tech devices that had been a feature of elections in SA for many years. This includes the Zip-Zip scanners – the portable barcode scanning units – that were used from 1999, until they were replaced by the VMDs during the 2021local government elections.

In November 2021, IEC chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo said the use of the VMDs “catapulted” electoral management to new heights, declaring the 2021 municipal elections as the most technologically-advanced held in the country.

While Aphane says the IEC is not shy to spend on tech, it is reluctant to share numbers, in terms of IT budget allocation for this year.

However, he reveals the contract for the VMDs was worth around R600 million, for example. “We’re spending quite a lot of money on technology, but not for the sake of spending. We are getting value for money.

“The VMD has avoided a lot of costs for us. There’s a lot of spending in IT, but when we think about how much money we’ve saved with these technologies that we’ve introduced, it’s quite an achievement.

“We initially bought a total of 40 000. Sadly, a few were stolen, but we were able to track them because they are smart devices. There are [some] breakages but luckily, we have a maintenance agreement with the service provider, so there is a plan for replacement.

“If we look at the total population of voting districts – there are 23 292. We have more than enough to cater for all the voting districts. Each voting district will have one. If it's a bigger voting district, we have two.

“We will also give the buffer stock to area managers. In case a VMD is giving issues, the area managers will go and replace it. At any point now, we've got close to 37 000 active VMDs, even though we have about 24 000 voting districts.”

Manual counting persists

Aphane says the IEC hasn’t introduced any tech or digital systems to count votes.

“Counting is still manual. Voting is a sensitive project – people are not prepared. We can actually bring tech in there, but we need buy-in from all the stakeholders, particularly political parties. Remember, these people are contesting and they are serious about making sure they win those seats.

“Once you bring in a counting machine, people need to buy into it and it needs to be according to law. As the IEC, we've tried to bring innovation; we even wanted to pilot e-voting.

“We did the research and we were ready with it, but Parliament was not ready and said we must wait a bit. So, counting is still manual to make sure everyone can see what's happening.”

Aphane explains that after voting closes, the ballots are put upside-down to make sure all ballots are accounted for, before they are turned around to see who has been voted for.

“Unfortunately, at this stage, we do not have any technology when it comes to counting. The only technology we will have there will be the VMD once again.”

Aphane comments that the manual process of counting votes is still “trusted” compared to a digital system.

“It is really a trusted one, but we have a good opportunity with artificial intelligence to explore that.

“It's visibility…people want to see. They want to be satisfied that I can see one, two or three; the ballot is there and so forth.

“But human beings get tired. We need to start tapping into technology to facilitate the process. Not to replace it, but to facilitate the process.”