Sangwani Mwafulirwa

By Gregory Gondwe, Blantyre, Malawi

The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) has abandoned the biometric voter registration system which it almost adopted for Malawi’s first ever tripartite elections next year.

The Director of Media and Publicity of the electoral body, Sangwani Mwafulirwa, told BiztechAfrica in an interview that although this is the best ICT technology suitable for electoral process as it has successfully worked in many countries; with the Malawi scenario they took heed of the advice from stakeholders.

“We could not implement the system within such a short period of time,” he said.

“The Commission shelved the idea to adopt a biometric voter registration system after advice from stakeholders,” added Mwafulirwa. “The advice was that the cost and risk was high to implement a biometric system other than maintaining the Optical Mark Recognition system.”

One of the stakeholders that advised MEC against adopting the system was the European Union (EU).

A recently-released report by the EU follow-up mission says while Malawi’s neighbours have migrated to direct capture technology, its seamless introduction requires sufficient lead-time to allow for mock field exercises and training.

“At this juncture of Malawi’s electoral cycle, several factors mitigate against system migration,” says the report which says only 17 months remain until 2014 tripartite elections, precluding tender procedures that would satisfy donors and that Malawi currently operates under an austerity budget.

MEC has also not explored synergy for dual-use of direct capture biometrics with other ministries while Malawi’s rural areas lack power supply and last but not least, migration would require a full re-registration of the entire voting population, whereas retention of the current medium-tech biometric system would allow for an update of the pre-existing voter roll, says the EU report.

In August 2012 procured a novel VR system as it was planning to migrate to a new system.

“Taking into account the exponential burden of implementing up to 700 simultaneous elections, introduction of novel technology, merely 17 month before E-day and without field testing, carries irreversible risks,” says the report.

The EU mission observed that while direct data entry of a new system eliminates scanning flaws, it remains exposed to myriad external factors, including to human error, to deficient planning in procurement and training activities, and to logistical constraints, not to mention software glitches, which already plague the current system.

“Lastly, retiring existing medium-tech equipment before the end of its shelf life and after use for only one electoral cycle throws up concerns of electoral economy,” the EU mission observed further.

Furthermore, the EU says introducing a novel high tech system requires a full registration exercise, since existing OMR and fresh BVR data cannot be merged.

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