The integrity of any democratic system rests on the integrity of how its people vote. For developing countries, establishing reliable and credible voting systems is one of the first steps towards democratizing their national politics. However, the countries that need democratization the most are those that are most prone to corruption. Voter fraud can be a very real issue, with, in the worst-case scenario, votes being ignored or conjured out of thin air, depending on what is politically expedient. Countries across the world are exploring using biometric identification as a way to address fraud and increase transparency, taking power out of the hands of local officials and handing it over to centralized systems that are more resistant to tampering.
Biometric voter registration systems are not new and are, in a sense, already baked into our democracies. Voters do not enter a password or PIN to verify their identity while voting. They provide visual identification, such as a driver’s license, with which their faces can be checked by local officials. Current biometric technology just builds on what’s already the norm, substituting human judgement with mathematic precision. It’s a process that factors out sticky problems like bias and prejudice, inconsistent standards for authentication, and, most critically, the corruptibility inherent in vesting humans with power over something as essential as political enfranchisement. It is this last part that has been most important for developing nations. In societies where democratic institutions are weak and money can trump rule of law, the need is greatest to anchor voting systems in math.
Countries around the world are already taking notice. In 2017 Angola held its second-ever democratic elections. Devastated by twenty-seven years of civil war, the country used Bluetooth fingerprint scanners to thwart attempts at election fraud. The system was a partial success. While local vote counts appeared credible, it is alleged that many provinces did not publish results derived from local numbers, and instead published numbers dictated to them by the national government. Even so, the use of biometrics will allow the courts to evaluate this claim, which is a step in the right direction.
Chad similarly implemented biometric voting registration in its 2016 presidential elections and saw mixed results. Biometric registration increased transparency at the local level, but voting was nonetheless compromised by anomalies, including accusations that soldiers were coerced into voting for the ruling party. If these accusations are true it shows that, useful as they may be, biometric systems aren’t a silver bullet for fraud. Although they can be helpful, it is essential that they are embedded within systems with some credibility. While Angola and Chad showed mixed results, other countries have been more promising. Bolivia, for example, started using biometrics in 2009 and was able to register large pools of voters who had previously been inaccessible.
While biometric voter registration inspires excitement for the benefits it can bring to developing nations, developed nations also stand much to gain. These countries may experience far lower rates of voter fraud in comparison to countries with less robust democratic infrastructure, but fraud remains an issue nonetheless. Whether or not it is a significant problem is often a question of partisan contention, as poignantly demonstrated by recent American politics, but biometrics offers a chance out of this conundrum. Implementing biometric voter registration has the potential to credibly address voter fraud, thereby placating groups that view it as an existential threat to developed democracies, while replacing more restrictive anti-fraud measures that disenfranchise voters.If biometric systems can succeed in developing nations that operate on scarce resources, then there seems to be little reason why they can’t eventually replace strict ID-laws that, as in the United States, tend to be both inefficient and inequitable.
Whether for developing or developed nations, biometrics offer a chance to infuse our electoral systems with more trust. While the implementation of biometrics alone cannot solve endemic problems in an electoral system, the use of biometric data can help bolster existing systems. For developing nations, they can help push countries towards greater systemic transparency. For developed nations, they can reaffirm the integrity of their systems and replace other anti-fraud measures that currently do more harm than good.
Featured Image: A person voting. Via Pexels.com.
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