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Despite Some Glitches, Ghana's New Biometric Voting System Widely Viewed as a Success

BY Gabriela Barnuevo | Thursday, December 13 2012

Biometric voting machine at a Ghanaian polling station (credit: Gabriela Barnuevo)

Ghanaians went to the polls last Friday to cast their ballots for president. Widely viewed as a poster child for stability and democracy in a region that is fraught by civil war and conflict, the West African country must now decide how to invest its newly discovered oil wealth.

The current elections placed the incumbent President John Dramani Mahama, 58 (@JDMahama), of the National Democractic Congress (NDC) against Nana Akufo-Addo, 64 (Nadaa2012), of the leading opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP). Mahama favors generating wealth by investing the country’s oil revenues in infrastructure, while Akufo-Addo counters that the way to raise the population out of poverty is to invest the money in free primary and secondary education. The average Ghanaian makes $4 per day, with the majority of the population yet to experience the benefits of oil revenues.

Technology dominated these elections, with candidates using popular social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to spread their messages. But it was the introduction of a biometric voter identification system that captured the most attention.

Ghana is one of the first African countries to use biometric identification for voters.

Biometric literally means life measurement; it is associated with using physiological characteristics to identify people. In this case the fingerprints were used as an identifier, with voters required to pre-register their prints and then have them authenticated by the Biometric Voting Machines (BVM) at the polling station. The Electoral Commission (EC) announced at a press conference, "Among the decisions we have taken with the political parties is 'NVNV — No Verification, No Vote.”

But the NVNV policy was challenged when the BVMs broke down at some polling stations, causing long waits and frayed tempers. In some cases, citizens were not able to exercise their right to vote on Friday.

At polling stations where the BVMs failed, voting was extended on the following day. There were no significant protests.

Addressing the technical difficulty with the identification machines, President Mahama announced on Election Day, “[that] people should be able to vote. If problems occur with voter identification, the polling agents should verify [the voter] through his/her registration documents.”

Waiting in line to vote for a second day, Patricia Kadua, 28, told techPresident, “For free and fair elections, I prefer the machines. They will help the electoral process, but for me it is very painful to have to come back again.”

Garry Palmer, a voter waiting patiently in one of the long lines at a polling station, said he did not “… know too much about [the] machines, just that they don’t work. We have more transparency, but we lost efficiency.”

The Electoral Commission introduced the biometric identifiers as a means of preventing a recurrence of incidents that marred the 2008 elections, when there were allegations of fraudulent voter registration and ballot stuffing.

Dr. Afari-Gyan, chair of the Electroral Commission in Ghana, said, “[the] biometric system can, in theory, increase transparency.”

Sylvia Annor, the Principal Public Relations Officer of the EC, told techPresident, “Unlike the previous register, the current one provides [an] avenue for verification which reduces instances of multiple voting.” Ms. Annor added, “The procedure for the transmission of election … is thoroughly transparent and does not lend itself to manipulation.”

Five EC officials were assigned to each polling station, Mrs. Annor explained: "..[the voters] have the right to be able to observe what is happening and then if they have any objection, they may seek redress through the presiding officer that heads each polling station.”

The BVMs are powered by AA batteries, with the EC instructing polling officials to change the batteries every five hours. But in cases where the batteries were not changed in time, the machine required two hours to reboot.

Polling officers were trained to follow a strict, multi-layered verification process for each voter that starts with the presentation of a voting card with a barcode. The polling agent examines the photo, compares it to the person in front of him and then scans the card, bringing up the voter’s barcode and photo on a monitor. The voter then places a finger on the BVM, which confirms his or her identity via a LED light and an audio message. Only then may a citizen proceed to cast his ballot.

Biometric voting machine at a Ghanaian polling station (credit: Gabriela Barnuevo)

Since it became the first sub Saharan African country to free itself from colonial rule in 1957, Ghana has introduced a stable democratic system that is respected across Africa. There is widely held national pride in this status, with politicians generally perceived as members of an educated elite, who maintain Ghana’s good reputation in international circles.

"Ghanaians are proud and aware of their political maturity and see themselves as a model for the region," says Ruby Sandhu-Rojon (@RubySandhuR_UN), UNDP representative in Accra.

Dr. Christiana Thorpe, deputy head of the ECOWAS (Economic Community Of West African States) Observer Mission, encouraged the Ghanaian government and organizations to have a fallback system of paper registration for the BVMs in cases where the machines malfunction. Canadian observers witnessed several cases where verification equipment did not recognize fingerprints due to dirty hands.

“A machine is a machine and if you put absolute reliance on machines something will fail,” Dr. Thorpe stated. In its follow up to the elections, ECOWAS praised both the transparency and peacefulness of Ghana's elections and the advantages of the BVM system. The observer mission stressed in its report that the BMV system should be used for upcoming elections, despite the technical glitches.

Gabriela Barnuevo is a multimedia journalist based in Ghana.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.