Windhoek – With Namibia gearing up for the general elections toward the end of 2019, a bitter debate of the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) has once again taken a centre stage.
Opposition political parties and commentators are up in arms calling the election authorities to abandon the use of EVMs and revert back to the ballot paper system of voting.
But the Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN) says it is too late to reintroduce the verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT).
Namibia became the first country in Africa to experiment with the paperless voting machines manufactured in India.
The EVMs were first used in 2014 during the presidential and parliamentary elections. They were again successfully used for the 2015 regional councils and local authority elections.
ENC was hailed for incorporating paperless balloting into the voting process, but it was not with controversies. Initially, Namibia bought 3 400 EVMs from Indian state-owned aerospace and defence entity Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) for the elections in November 2014. At the time, ECN stressed that the adoption of EVMs has simplified the process of printing of ballot papers.
That it was no more required to print thousands of ballot papers for every polling station, which significantly reduced cost of conducting the polls and number of spoilt ballots papers.
The use of EVMs in Namibia have been met with suspicion mostly by opposition parties that they susceptible to tampering.
They claimed that the machines can be pre-programmed to favour the ruling Swapo Party. The former liberation movement has dominated local politics since independence in 1990.
In 2014, the party’s presidential candidate Hage Geingob garnered a record 86.73% of the total votes in the presidential race.
Prior to the elections in 2014, a group of opposition parties failed in their petition to have the High Court block the use of EVMs, which they claimed was unconditional and in violation of the new Electoral Act.
The parties claimed that the machines were not catered for by the Electoral Act of 2014, which can into force in 2015.
The fierce debate on the EVMs continues – as opposition once again casting aspersions on the effectiveness and legality of the machine.
Opposition politicians are demanding the use of VVPAT in the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for November.
This they argue is not only in accordance with the Electoral Act of 2014, but allows for voters’ verification through a receipt unlike the EVMs.
Section 97 (3) of the Electoral Act makes provision for the use of EVMs with a verifiable paper trail for each vote cast.
In addition, Section 97 (4) specifies that should the results of the EVMs and that of paper trail do not tally, the latter will should be accepted as the election outcome.
The leader of the official opposition in parliament, McHenry Venaani has been vocal against the use of EVMs without a voter-verified paper audit trail.
“It is our fervent demand and request that the voting machines that we are going to use next year have a verifiable audited paper trail for the elections to have the highest standards of free and fairness,” Venaani has said.
The secretary general of the Rally for Democracy and Progress Mike Kavekotora is on record saying his party will plan to consult other opposition political parties to take a common stand on the electronic voting machines.
“My recommendation was very specific and unequivocal that we must get rid of EVMs and go back to the ballot papers,” the opposition lawmaker has said. Barney Karuuombe, an election commissioner who is seeking reappointment stressed that the debate on the use of EVMs in the upcoming elections with or without VVPAT can not be ignored.
Karuuombe who is part of the electoral commission that adopted the EVMs back in 2014, called on the ECN to dialogue with the concerned parties.
However, he ruled out the reintroduction of old-fashioned ballot voting system stressed that “We rather have to perfect what we have instead of going back to where we have been”.
The EVMs that consist of ballot unit, control unit as well as a tabulator does to allow voters to verify their votes. Hence critics argue the machine can be made more secure if used simultaneously with VVPAT.
Despite the hullabaloo from the opposition, the ECN noted it is unlikely to use EVMs with VVPAT to logistical constraints.
In 2018, the election body reached to Barat Electronics Limited to supply VVPAT-enabled electronic voting machines.
BEL has supplied in total 7 850 EVMs units for 2014 and 2015 elections. Chief Electoral Officer Theo Mujoro recently revealed that the ECN is unable to procure the VVPAT, which cost in the region of N$160 million.
In addition, Mujoro revealed that BEL is unlikely to honour its commitment to Namibia, due to a big order for VVPAT back home.
The VVPAT technology will be used for the first time India, during the legislative elections in Hmichal Pradesh state in May 2019.
The technology allows voters to confirm their vote through a receipt. Mujoro has rapped the critics of the EVMs, saying the machines have served Namibia well during the past elections.
According to the ECN, EVMs enhances speed and accuracy in the voting and counting process.
They also eliminated the possibility of human error in the counting and that the perception that the stand-alone devices are can be tampered with are unfounded.
“We had serious issues of spoiled ballots, tendered voting system –there were reasons why the commission decided to move from ballot paper to EVMs and we say those realities still exist,” Mujoro said in recent interview.