No tech catastrophe will hinder election outcome, says IEC

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 23 Apr 2024
Electronic voting by country varies and may include voting machines in polling places, centralised tallying of paper ballots and internet voting.
Electronic voting by country varies and may include voting machines in polling places, centralised tallying of paper ballots and internet voting.

South Africa needs a “huge” dialogue before it can implement electronic voting in future elections.

So said Mawethu Mosery, Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) deputy chief electoral officer, in an exclusive interview with ITWeb on Sunday.

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.

According to Mosery, the current election processes are largely manual and after the polls, the country must debate how to introduce electronic voting.

He pointed out there are divergent views in SA about what constitutes electronic voting, and these needs to be ironed out when the new administration is sworn in.

Mosery also vowed that while the election processes are largely manual, the IEC will be able to conduct the polls and announce the outcome in time.

Electronic voting by country varies and may include voting machines in polling places, centralised tallying of paper ballots and internet voting.

Several countries have experimented with or implemented online voting to varying extents. These include Australia, Estonia, the US, France and Canada.

“Our voting process is all manual…and sometimes political parties allege that ‘electronics are manipulated this way or that way’. We then tell them ‘but where do you get that assumption?’ This is because our voting process is a hard-copy paper that is deposited at the station and the voters mark that paper,” Mosery said.

“Even as a tech person, if you question what happens if the system is attacked and shut down, we will still have an election outcome on the scheduled legal date, which is seven days after voting. We must announce and proclaim the election outcome because all our work is manual.”

He pointed out that the IEC only uses technology when tallying the votes because it’s much faster than a human being.

So, no technological catastrophe will stop the IEC from providing the election outcome, he noted.

Up for discussion

Mosery said the country is still at a policy formulation level on e-voting. “We need to debate policy around that. With the incoming seventh administration, we will have a programme to discuss policy formulation and the need for it – not only because it’s convenient. It can’t be about convenience only – it should also be about affordability and equal access.

“If banks are still struggling to put ATMs in the most rural of areas, it therefore says we will struggle to make every site – 23 000 of them – have the same access to the same technology around voting.

“So [electronic] voting, per se, is maybe a later addition, as we improve the infrastructure of the country, but there may be other technologies, such as counting, and others that we may introduce as we go.”

Mawethu Mosery, Electoral Commission of South Africa’s deputy chief electoral officer. (Image source: GCIS)
Mawethu Mosery, Electoral Commission of South Africa’s deputy chief electoral officer. (Image source: GCIS)

However, he revealed there is challenge in the discussions around electronic voting in SA. “We do not have the same ideas or common purpose on what is it that we are talking about. Others are talking about electronic counting, others are talking about the actual internet-based voting, and other are talking about a gadget at the voting station.

“I think, as a country, we need to go into a huge dialogue to unpack what we mean. We do think that post the election − once the new administration has settled down − we may encourage them to consider hosting a dialogue around electronic voting and other technologies,” he said.

Double-voting concerns

In the wide-ranging interview, Mosery also discussed the plans the IEC has in place to counter double-voting.

Last month, the IEC said it will deploy a custom business application to ensure members of the public don’t vote twice during the elections.

Mosery pointed out there is one common national voters’ roll for South Africa, not various pieces of it.

“Your name on the roll only appears once and that safeguards the roll from any person to think that they can vote for the second time.

“Having said that, we also say ‘vote where you are registered’. You can’t just pitch up at any venue and say ‘here is my ID, I am on the voters’ roll, check my name, and allow me to vote’. No, we will send you to where you are registered.”

However, he said if a voter gives notice by 17 May that they will not be able to vote at the station where they registered, they can update the details to choose the station they can vote at.

“We also deal with special votes arrangements, where we say in the event that you cannot come on the 29th, here are the options for you.”

He added there is a special vote for citizens residing out of the country, as well as those inside the country.

“When you have voted, we mark your thumb. We always hear stories on voting day that people can remove it [ink] using various chemicals and we always say ‘why do you have to go to the extent of using all these chemicals trying to remove the ink? What’s your intention?’

“We take your name off the voters’ roll once you have voted. So, you can’t come back and say you don’t know who took out your name. We then cancel your ID on our technology – the voter management device.”

He explained that the moment the voter management device captures a name, it sends a message to the main database in Pretoria, which replicates the fact that the person has voted to all the other 23 000 machines being used in the country.

“If you arrive at the next station and say I’m here to vote and the machine says you’ve voted, it means you’ve voted. We will not scan you with the device until we are processing you to vote at that site.

“All of these are safeguards and we are saying to people who want to vote twice that generally our approach is that it is impossible to do so.

“In the last election in 2019, there was no evidence of any double-voting. We wasted a lot of time, energy and resources chasing an assumption made by some individual somewhere in the country.”

Load-shedding preparations

The IEC has plans in place in the event of power outages on Election Day, Mosery revealed.

“We expect it [load-shedding] to be there. It has been a phenomenon for the country for a few years now and we have planned for it.”

Beyond load-shedding, he said the commission has also planned for outages and adverse weather conditions that may affect lighting.

“Let’s start by saying the whole voting and counting process is manual – it’s not dependent on technology. For the voters’ roll, we have a hard copy roll at the stations, so voting will continue, and when we are doing the counting at night, it’s all manual.

“We have provided battery solar lighting to ensure there is light at the voting stations. Before the final voter walks in at 9pm and until the counting is completed, there will still be light at the voting stations.

“We are also working closely with Eskom and the minister of electricity to plan for that day to be a fully-lit day across the country,” he concluded.