Orrette Fisher | New voter identification system to be unveiled
The Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ), from reports received, is set to roll out a new system of identifying voters in polling stations in select constituencies in the upcoming general election. This, to my mind, although long overdue, is definitely a step in the right direction.
The electoral system in Jamaica has matured significantly over the years. Despite the recent murmurings about the removal of dead electors from the list, the voters’ list has not been a bone of contention for the political parties since the 1990s. The use of biometrics (fingerprints) has significantly reduced the problem of multiple registrations by an individual since the fingerprints reveal duplications on the list.
The challenge has, therefore, been to prevent personation – someone being able to vote in someone else’s name. Several measures have been adopted over the years to limit the possibility of this happening.
Originally, the presence of party agents in the polling station, supposedly able to identify persons voting in the particular location, was the primary means of preventing this from happening. Quite apart from the possibility of indoor agents being dishonest or simply not knowing every elector, the final decision as to whether an elector is allowed to vote rests with the presiding officer even when objected to by an indoor agent.
Once the ballot for that elector goes into the ballot box, there is no means of identifying and removing same, so such an objection is really academic and does not solve the problem. A lot, therefore, depended on the integrity of the polling station staff.
Interestingly, should you be told on entering the polling station that someone has already voted in your name, once you are able to satisfactorily prove your identity, under the law, you must be allowed to vote.
Next in line is the presence in the polling station of what is popularly referred to as ‘the Black Book’. This is, essentially, a copy of the elector’s registration record, inclusive of the photograph and personal details, which the presiding officer can use to assist in verifying the identity of the voter. This, too, is not foolproof as the information in the black book is not available to the indoor agents, and the final decision is again in the hands of the presiding officer.
In an effort to further improve transparency inside the polling station, the EOJ has, in recent elections, made available a voters’ list with the photograph of each elector included. This picture voters’ list is available to the indoor agents, who can use it to make their own determination as to the identity of each elector being queried.
THE ELECTRONIC VOTER IDENTIFICATION SYSTEM (EVIS)
The biggest and most effective breakthrough in reducing voter personation came with the development and introduction of the EVIS. In short, the system uses fingerprints to identify the elector before a ballot is issued, which is then marked in the traditional manner. (This is not electronic voting.)
This system, since its introduction in the late 1990s to the early 2000s, has moved from the use of desktop computers and uninterrupted power supply (UPS) back-up in the polling stations to laptop computers with spare batteries.
The cost of the equipment plus the level of support required in the field has limited its use to just about 700 of the 7,000 polling stations. What this means is that there is no homogeneity in the identification process across the country.
THE NEW TECHNOLOGY
So while Jamaica was ahead of its time with this innovation, the rest of the world has caught up and moved ahead. The putting together of the different components (laptop, fingerprint reader, and previously printer and Uninterruptible Power Supply (ups) has been replaced by an integrated hand-held device. This device has the screen and fingerprint reader integrated and does not require the same level of technical support in the field.
The big news is that the electoral office has finally decided to invest in the new technology. This new hand-held device, several versions of which are available on the market, has been used successfully across several jurisdictions, including Nigeria, South Africa, and Ghana. It has proven to be quite robust and able to function even under adverse conditions.
Indications are that Jamaica has finally decided to abandon the use of laptops and has moved to acquire the new hand-held devices, which are expected to be unveiled in the next election.
The bad news, however, is that the devices are not enough to cover all polling stations but to, essentially, replace the EVIS machines in 700-plus selected stations. In deciding where the system is used, one could argue that certain constituencies are being targeted and potentially stigmatised.
So while congratulations are in order for finally taking this step, the next move must be to acquire enough devices for use in all polling stations and to return the country to homogenous elections, where all electors are subject to the same level of scrutiny when going to vote.
- Orrette Fisher is an election management consultant and former director of elections. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org