Liberia Forges Forward in Elections Technology Despite Kenyan Setback

Liberia’s Oct. 10 presidential and legislative elections are significant for several reasons. The country which represents Africa’s oldest republic will be conducting its third post-war election and first transitional election that would witness the transfer of power between a living incumbent president and president-elect.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president and Noble Laureate has been at the center of a tumultuous 12-year reign. Her tenure has been marked by allegations of nepotism and corruption, and a declining economy, worsened by the Ebola crisis. Sirleaf takes credit for managing to pull the country together after a civil war that lasted over a decade, and for rebuilding Liberia’s international standing.

The race to succeed Sirleaf is intense with about 20 presidential candidates on the ballot. Vice President Joseph Boakai faces strong contenders in the race– George Weah whose running mate is Jewel Howard-Taylor, ex-wife of former president and convicted war criminal Charles Taylor, will dominate the presidential elections. Charles Brumskine, alleged to have received the covert support of President Sirleaf, and Former rebel leader Prince Johnson, the alleged murderer of President Samuel Doe are also major contenders.

Liberia’s 4.5 million population has only 2.1 million registered voters. With an average turnout of 58.72%, and a 38% average during run-offs, the thin spread of votes across 20 presidential candidates in this election will make it mathematically difficult for a candidate to attain the required 50+1% in the first round. A run-off is likely.

Technology is at the centre of the historic elections

Liberians are not only remarkable for their complex history, but also for their innovative tools utilized by the National Electoral Commission (NEC). Aided by technology tools – tallying software, voting databases and real-time web based results reporting – Liberia’s 2011 elections were adjudged to have been transparent and open. The NEC is eager to recreate in 2017.

The NEC’s tallying software will aggregate results from the polling stations, and made accessible to the national tallying centre in real-time to guarantee transparent results collation process – an existential issue across the continent. Only one-third of Africans think that results are counted fairly, a huge problem as disputed votes could become contentious. Elections go beyond triumphs and defeats, the quality of the process shapes opinion of the people about their political system. If things go awry, the public’s faith in democratic processes would be greatly diminished.

National electoral commissions in Africa are crucial players in the electoral process, and must consistently explore and innovate mechanisms that guarantee credible, transparent and accessible elections. Electoral Commissions are vital in shaping public perceptions of how functional democracies are.

Liberia’s NEC joins a limited group of electoral commissions on the continent to adopt tactile ballot systems for inclusive elections. 30,000 tactile ballot technology will be deployed to allow visually impaired voters vote unassisted on election day for the first time in Liberia’s history. “The commission is happy to meet its quest for total inclusion in the October polls,” declared the co-chairman of the NEC.

Great attention is on Liberia’s National Electoral Commission’s deployment of the tallying software. The technology will rely on V-SAT connectivity infrastructure that will ensure speedy transfer of results from the voting centers across the country; this has been installed in the 19 elections magisterial areas in the nation.

As an official of the NEC explained to me, the distinction between the Liberian tallying software and Kenya’s Results Transmission System (RTS), is that “Kenya’s technology is built by a third party and our technology is built by us, it will work,” alluding to its local and proprietary build. The clear distinction here is Kenya’s RTS system was accessible to the world, and Liberia’s will only be accessible to NEC staff. This technology is expected to ensure that there are no anomalies during the tallying process and ensure credibility in contentious elections. A process several electoral commissions on the continent have passively avoided.

Increasingly, electoral commissions in Africa are apprehensive in deploying technology for elections. They have a case in point, at times. I was told by an executive of a prominent electoral commission in Africa, “technology folks like you are the ones we are scared of.” Kenya’s annulled election is routinely cited as an example of why technology should not be deployed in African elections. People miss the point, if Kenya’s IEBC did not create a process which granted easy access to the collation process, the anomalies that led to the annulment of the elections would likely not have been discovered.

Kenya’s Supreme Court verdict is a landmark decision for the continent. It is a case in point that technology can indeed make the electoral process transparent and prove decisive when challenges are brought forward.

Despite the current conflict plaguing Kenya’s IEBC, credit is due to the commission for leaping into uncharted waters and breaking open a usually opaque transmission process in Africa.

If Liberia, one of Africa’s less buoyant countries can display audacity in advancing elections technology on the continent, why are more resourced and advanced African countries running scared?

Ultimately, Liberia’s poll is in a lot of ways, important for the future of African elections. Heads of election management bodies across Africa are in the country to learn and show support for crucial general elections. Hopefully, they leave open-minded and willing to explore these technologies in their countries.

Fatu Ogwuche is an international elections technology expert, and the Creator of The Election Network. A fellow of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, Fatu has worked on several elections on the continent including Gambia, Nigeria, Kenya, Liberia and Ghana. Fatu worked with Ushahidi to map issues around the 2016 elections in the United States. She served as a long-term observer in the 2017 Kenyan Elections with the Carter Center.