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New tech ‘catapulted’ electoral management, says IEC

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 05 Nov 2021

Despite the lowest voter turnout since the dawn of South African democracy, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) described this year's local government elections as the most “technologically-advanced”.

South Africans this week expressed their electoral choice in the sixth democratic municipal elections, electing councillors for all district, metropolitan and local municipalities in each of the country’s nine provinces.

Announcing the final results of the elections yesterday, IEC chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo remarked this year’s elections were characterised by uncertainties.

Mamabolo noted the elections were as much about participation as the introduction of digital solutions in the electoral process. “The use of the voter management devices catapulted electoral management in our country to new heights.

“No doubt, operational challenges were encountered. Despite that, the 2021 municipal elections were the most technologically-advanced ever held in the country.”

Mamabolo revealed to the elections delegation at the IEC Results Operations Centre in Tshwane that the commission deployed 30 387 voter management devices, which were centrally connected through an access point network.

“These digital connections enabled the strengthening of controls in the voting process. Once ballots were issued to the voter, they could not present themselves at another station without detection.

“The use of these VMDs [voter management devices] in the voting stations enabled a live and centrally-connected voters’ roll. This capability will decisively lay to rest allegations of double voting.

“With the VMDs, possibilities abound. The prospect of building additional engines and reports will enable the real-time monitoring of the quantities of ballot papers issued and on-hand at each voting station. This will remedy voting stations running out of ballot papers.

“Therefore, the introduction of VMDs can only serve to fortify controls and enhance capabilities to manage the voting process efficiently.”

The chief electoral officer emphasised that current challenges shouldn’t cloud the desire to exploit digital technology to better electoral engagement. “We dare not retract the progress we have made.”

Mail & Guardian reported “challenges” with the new voter management devices resulted in about 67 000 voters, whose details had not been uploaded into the electoral system, being turned away.

New tech at work

Over the years, the electoral commission has attempted to enhance its use of technology to improve the voting process for citizens and political parties, with pundits encouraging deployment of smart technology during the pre-election phase to expedite voter registration.

In April, while appearing before Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, the IEC indicated plans to roll out the new voter management devices.

It also said it will introduce an online solution, that with the new-generation technology devices, will enhance voter registration and monitor voter participation in real-time.

At the time, the IEC said the new voter management devices will replace the Zip-Zip scanners, which have been a feature of elections in SA for many years.

Remarking on the use of new tech during these elections, IEC chairperson Glen Mashinini yesterday said despite challenges, the commission achieved its innovative objectives of taking the electoral system to the next level of automation through the introduction of the voter management devices.

“The fact that we are here today, having delivered these elections, is an achievement we should all be proud of as a nation. Our thriving, vibrant and maturing democracy has indeed withstood the test thrown at it.

“The commission…is proud that it is still flying high the banner of electoral integrity, excellence as well as free and fair elections.”

Other tech deployed during the elections includes the latest generation of W-LAN technology, WiFi 6.

Telkom indicated WiFi 6 technology was, for the first time, used to support the IEC to run the country’s elections. The mobile operator supplied the voice and data network backbone for the IEC, to allow for the collation and reporting of votes across the country.

Vodacom, which provided tech support to ensure the smooth running of the elections, said in a statement to ITWeb: "Vodacom is pleased to offer its technical support to the IEC to ensure all voting stations across the country had network coverage on election day.”

More than 26.1 million South Africans registered to vote in the 2021 municipal elections, with a total of 12.3 million casting their votes on Monday, 1 November.