Since the restoration of democratic rule in Nigeria in 1999, the country has seen a steady decline in voter participation during each election cycle. In the 2021 Aba North/Aba South federal constituency of Abia State’s federal legislative by-election, only 3% of registered voters were recorded to have shown up to cast their votes. This voter apathy can be largely attributed to the lack of trust in the voting system, which is fuelled by questionable voter accreditation procedures and the controversies that often surround the vote counting and winner declaration processes.
Over the years, there have been concerns about electoral malpractices such as rigging, voter intimidation, and violence. As a result, many citizens have become sceptical about the impact of their votes, leading to a widespread sense of apathy and disinterest in participating in the democratic process. With technology on the rise in recent times, there are questions regarding how much influence new and emerging tech trends can play in ensuring free, fair, and transparent elections.
Starting with the most apparent trend, social media. Nigeria has a high social media penetration with over 26 million users according to Statista, we can establish that technology is set to impact elections and the electioneering process, the question that remains is ‘to what extent?’. Social media serves as a very effective tool for shaping public opinion, influencing voter behaviour, as well as providing a platform for political campaigns. It fosters engagement with various demographic groups who may not naturally partake in these political conversations. The downside to this however is that due to its unregulated nature, social media becomes a haven for the propagation of hate speech, fake news, and the spread of misinformation.
In addition to social media, with the help of big data, political parties and candidates can access insights into voter behaviour and preferences to assist with political campaigns and policy decisions. Vast amounts of information on voters such as demographic data, voting history, social media activity and so on can be collected and used to target specific groups of voters. Big data can monitor and predict election outcomes and inform campaign strategies and resource allocation.
The internet and the rise of fintech innovations have also made it a lot easier to organise fundraisers for political parties and campaign activities. The ease provided by these fintech solutions reduces the risks associated with carrying huge sums of money as donations and payment can be facilitated on mobile money platforms. This, in addition, can be used to increase transparency and accountability in the electioneering process by tracking campaign finances and expenditures.
Technology is also very critical to the development of voting systems and in ensuring the efficiency, accuracy, and transparency of the electoral process. It is instrumental in the design of electronic voting machines and systems, implementing measures such as biometric voter identification, blockchain-based voting, real-time monitoring of voting processes, remote voting, and online or mobile voting. It is important for improving the security and integrity of voting systems.
For example, the Biometric Voters Accreditation System (BVAS) was introduced in 2011 to address issues of rigging and voter fraud that marred Nigeria’s electoral system by verifying the identity of voters using biometric data (fingerprint and facial recognition). Since its introduction, there has been a drop in the cases of rigging and electoral fraud as the use of biometric verification has made it more difficult for voters to cast multiple votes or for ineligible voters to participate in the voting process. BVAS has made the electoral process more efficient by reducing the amount of time required to verify and accredit voters.
However, the implementation of BVAS in the electoral process is not without its share of challenges, one of which is the issue of technical glitches during elections. When this occurs, the technology fails to accurately authenticate voters thereby causing delays and confusion at the polling units. In some cases, voters have to resort to manual verification and accreditation hereby defeating the very purpose of BVAS. In addition, there are concerns about the security of biometric data captured by BVAS. There are fears that the data can be compromised or used for other purposes beyond the electoral process. There have been reports of individuals circumventing the system as well and engaging in vote-buying or other forms of electoral misconduct.
It is instrumental for sustainable government and the deepening of democracy in the country, this is why Telecommunications and Technology Sustainability Working Group (TTSWG) is set to host a webinar on the 16th of March 2023 to ensure that all and sundry are adequately educated on the ‘Role of ICT in Deepening Democracy and Sustainable Governance’.
In conclusion, technology undoubtedly has made and has the potential to continue to make a significant impact on elections in Nigeria. The impact of technology cuts across voter registration, result collation, and transmission. It has helped to reduce fraud, increasing transparency and accountability in the electioneering process. However, there is a need for more efforts to be made to ensure that technology is utilised effectively and not for manipulating the process. Just as any efficient tool, in the hands of the wrong people it could be used to the detriment of our democracy.
It is important for stakeholders to explore innovative ways to leverage technology to ensure that the electoral process remains free and fair, and regulate its use as well to ensure that the civil right of the masses is not compromised.