A flawed election is better than no election. While in many countries that’s true, it should not be allowed to set the standard, as it does far too often.
Managing ballots and ensuring that they are all accounted for and properly tallied and accurately reported is analogous to accounting for all the transactions that occur in a cash business and ensuring that all the money is banked. It is logical that the controls that exist to make sure that cash doesn’t disappear should be found in the systems used for elections, but usually they aren’t.
In a business the primary controls are separation of duties, balancing the figures, and reconciling the data to other reliable figures. The person handling cash doesn’t handle goods. The person issuing the goods doesn’t handle the cash. The stocks are reconciled to the sales. Sales are reconciled to the money banked. The money banked is reconciled to the bank statements. Differences in the reconciliations precipitate investigation until they are satisfactorily resolved.
In a good business the systems report to management immediately when there is any attempt to circumvent the controls. And management makes sure that they know what’s going on.
In an election the ballots are the business’ equivalent of cash. The ballots used must balance with the number of voters authenticated against the polling lists. The number of voters that voted must balance to the number of voters authenticated. A number of voters authenticated must balance to the independent tallies of voters that entered the polling station to those that left it, less the number of people who could not be authenticated. The number of votes counted must balance to the number of ballots cast less the number of spoiled ballots.
The people counting the number of voters are not the same as those who authenticate them to the polling lists. The people counting the votes are not the same people who issued the ballots to the voters.
At each stage each person responsible for a task should be reporting the figures to the electoral management body so that there is no opportunity for collusion. The central system can then perform the reconciliations automatically, and when something doesn’t balance, the system should notify management to initiate an immediate investigation.
In most elections it doesn’t happen like that.
It is up to observers, disenfranchised voters, and the losing candidates to detect and report irregularities. That’s not a system.
Usually it is only when the ballots are returned to the election management body that the reconciliations are done, if at all, sometimes days later.
When the announcement of the result has already been delayed by the logistical difficulties of getting the ballots back to the central electoral management body, the revelation that potential irregularities will further delay the outcome of the election raises suspicion and undermines the legitimacy of the result in the minds of the electorate.
The proposal that these basic controls should exist is frequently countered with the excuse that the infrastructure is not available and that developed country solutions are too expensive and won’t work in places where the electricity is unreliable and the Internet access is almost nonexistent.
And yet those are the countries that are leading the world using SMS to meet the public’s desperate need for banking services. That works fine! It can work for elections too.
Recently SMS technology was adopted for the Kenyan presidential election and it failed miserably. The lack of transparency as to what went wrong suggests that it was not the technology, but the implementation that was to blame.
Introducing these basic controls will, in the absence of massive collusion, eliminate ballot stuffing, manipulation of the results after capture, and many of the elemental errors that often contribute to lack of voter credibility.
Reading through the curricula of the political science degrees at the leading universities reveals that accounting is not a course that is offered. Perhaps that explains why the people advising election commissions don’t promote those controls that exist in well-run businesses.
That should change.
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