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Libya Uses World's First Mobile Voter Registration System for Parliament Elections

BY Rebecca Chao | Wednesday, June 25 2014

An advertisement for SMS voter registration in Tripoli. (Credit: Josh Levinger)

In just six months, a small staff of 20 people using open source tools, built a complex, first-of-its-kind mobile registration system in Libya, a transitioning country beset with violence. Today, Libyans will vote for a new parliament and 1.5 million citizens have registered. Since the fall of Libya's long-ruling dictator, Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the violence and tribal clashes that plague the country have overshadowed the work of a new government straining to rebuild it through innovation and openness.

In 2013, the social impact firm, Reboot, began working with the Libyan government’s High National Election Commission (HNEC) to digitize their voter registration system. While a deteriorating security situation made it difficult for Libyans to physically register, mobile phone penetration has reached 148.2 percent with 9.59 million subscriptions for the country’s 6.5 million people. An estimated 2.8 to 4.36 million are eligible to vote, according to the Carter Center.

Building the world’s first mobile registration system in a transitioning country like Libya was a daunting task, says Panthea Lee, co-founder of the social impact firm, Reboot. Libya needed to create an inclusive process while also encouraging people who have long lived under a repressive regime to cast their vote.

Reboot managed a team of technologists from around the world to build a system that could be used both in-country as well as by the 800,000 diaspora Libyans scattered across 13 countries around the world. The system was first tested during Libya’s Constitutional Assembly Elections in February of this year where HNEC registered 1.1 million voters.

The Design

The process of registering is simple: users texts their national ID number, polling center, birthdate and gender to a short code. This data is then relayed back to the system and matched against a database to verify the voter’s eligibility. If it matches, the user gets a confirmation.

With the voter registration data, HNEC can send out large volumes of text messages to citizens, reminding them to register, vote and instructing them on how to do so.

“We put a lot of effort in designing the user interface so that it would be easy to use for all Libyans,” says Elliott Wilkes, a consultant hired by Reboot to oversee the technical aspects of the project. “For populations outside of the coastal areas, network coverage is less encompassing and education levels are different as well. These people are not used to using cell phones in the same manner as coastal Libyans.”

The language of each text also had to be carefully crafted. “Everyone speaks Arabic but it’s highly dialectical. As an example, there are 40 words for ‘land’ in Libyan Arabic alone.”

While HNEC wanted the system to be as inclusive as possible, telecommunication companies worried that free texts would result in spam. The best way to prevent it would be to charge a nominal fee, which was set at .05 Libyan Dinar or 2 U.S. cents.

“There was a lot of going back and forth with the telecommunication companies pushing very strongly to have some level of nominal charge,” says Wilkes. “Given the numbers we saw for the first constitutional drafting assembly and for this election, cost is not a prohibiting factor.”

Those without mobile phones or who did not want to pay the fee could still register in person for free. “Tens of thousands of people registered via these centers,” says Hunter Price, one of the project managers. “They did so without paying."

Unlike with paper-based registration, the mobile system could easily counteract multiple registrations and ensure only one registration per person.

“You can use one phone and register an entire family,” explains Daryl Katz Riethof, a project manager at Caktus, one of the technology firms behind the project. “It doesn’t matter how many you register but you can’t register the same person from another phone. You can do 20 from one phone but then you can’t change the phone number. You have to go in person to switch the phone for registration.”

A second component of the mobile registration system is an online dashboard that acts as a real-time “exit poll,” says Hao Nguyen, a strategy director at Caktus. At designated times, the volunteers working at the polls count the number of people voting, not the actual ballots cast, and send the number to the dashboard through their mobile phones. It is an informal count but it allows the government to track voter turnout in real-time.

Real-time Dashboard (credit: screenshot)

Benefits

The mobile voter registration system has enabled accuracy and transparency in data collection, says Price. “The Libyan government now has an accurate number of persons who are registered, and knows where they're registered. This allows HNEC to do a better job of making sure polling lines are short, that each polling location has enough ballots, and is better able to coordinate with other government agencies in order to make the voting experience as smooth as possible.”

The digitization has also enabled HNEC to work on their voter outreach, such as tailored messages to citizens about registration or voting. While HNEC has utilized traditional outlets like radio and T.V., they have also turned to Facebook and Google advertising.

Running a SMS-based system is also economical, says Price. “It has saved the government tens of millions in dollars in operating costs. Similarly, a digital voter roll and the improved data allows HNEC to better deploy polling day resources and to save millions of dollars that otherwise might be spent on excess ballots or unnecessary staff. And now that HNEC has access to high quality data, they are using it to make improvements to the voting experience with each new election.”

He adds, “Libya has a lot of ground to make up in terms of governance after almost half a century of dictatorial neglect. And while there are pressing needs for improvement across the government it's exciting to see the Electoral Commission making the advances that they have.”

Challenges

In 2012, the first post-Gaddafi election brought in 2.7 million instances of registrations. That was before the mobile registration system had been implemented, raising concerns about its effectiveness.

“But [instances] do not translate to actual 2.7 million persons registered,” explains Price. “During the run up to that election there were widespread occurrences of persons registering in two, three, or even more constituencies,” he said. “Because all registration was done in person and only on paper in 2012, there was no way to prevent individuals from registering in multiple locations, or even know when they did, thus the 2.7 million figure reflects the registrations of a lot less than 2.7 million persons.”

Price explains that Libyans were also riding off of the high of overthrowing Gaddafi and that such enthusiasm is “hard to recreate.”

After the first election, the security situation in Libya also changed. “For instance, in Derna there will be no polling today due to fears of attacks on polling centers, and this has affected registration as some people have decided that there isn't any point in registration if they know polling centers in their area won't open,” says Price.

He adds, “The boycott by some of the ethnic minorities has also affected registration numbers, as these communities have significantly repressed registration due to the expectation that they will be boycotting the actual elections.”

The reality is that technology can make it easier for those who want to register, but it cannot change the minds of those who don’t.

“As you well know, there are no silver-bullet solutions—tech or otherwise,” says Lee. “In Libya's current context, the potential for a technology solution—even one that is as inclusive as possible—to realize its promise can be easily subsumed by persistent violence and a highly charged political environment. But in spite of this, we feel there is still great value in building foundational tools that, over time and many more elections to come, can help engage more citizens in the political process.”

Despite the challenges of working with a young and transitioning government, Panthea Lee explains that her experience with HNEC was far from the bumbling bureaucracy depicted in the media.

“After the revolution, you had a lot of government institutions that had been purged of all their senior staff under Gaddafi." Much of the government staff now come from diverse sectors "who are very energized in rebuilding their country even if they had no prior experience in government,” Lee explains. “What we were so impressed by, despite the pressure of working to an electoral calendar, which is an insane, crazy process, is that people were very open to asking what’s the best process? What makes most sense?"

Lee points out that their work in Libya happened to coincide with the roll out of President Barack Obama's healthcare.gov, whose launch was paralyzed by technical glitches. She says that while there’s an assumption that "best practices transfer from global north to global south,” this experience in Libya “taught us something about how those lessons flow the other way as well.”

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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