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It’s high time voter registration became available online

Long queue of voters in Zimbabwe's election 30 July 2018, voter registration online

2018 feels like an eternity ago after the year and some change we have spent cooped up in our homes. Since then we have learned and done things we never thought possible. If you told someone in 2018, that several banks would zero-rate their platforms or that those same banks would make it possible to open an account via USSD no one would believe you.

Much of the way we do things has become remote. The internet and all things digital rule the day and even the government is seeing this trend. Just this month the government said the national registry and the 2022 census would be digital and paperless respectively.

Yet, the one thing that has been excluded from the drive to digital has been voter registration. Now in all fairness, Zimbabwe has some degree of digitisation for the process. Those who registered to vote in the 2018 General Election could verify their registration details on USSD.

Ways of checking your Voter Registration details:

– Visit your allocated polling station and check

– Receive an SMS with your details

– Press *265# and follow the commands

– Use the link; http://bvrinspection.zec.org.zw and check

Various online or digital voter registration and verification methods

The SMS, USSD and online verification process is, according to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), one of four ways voter registration and verification can happen online or digitally. The other three ways are:

  • assigning polling station using online interface (registering yourself to a polling station online)
  • confirmation of registration using online interface (confirming your details via the online platform like you can in Zimbabwe)
  • assigned polling station using mobile phone

Unsurprisingly Africa ranks lowest when it comes to the countries that don’t have any form of digital voter registration or confirmation.

ContinentNoYes, confirmation of registration using online interfaceYes, assigned polling station using online interfaceYes, confirmation of registration using mobile phoneYes, assigned polling station using mobile phoneNot applicableNot specifiedCountries researched
Africa24
(48.0%)
20
(40.0%)
16
(32.0%)
8
(16.0%)
8
(16.0%)
0
(0.0%)
0
(0.0%)
50
Americas2
(8.0%)
16
(64.0%)
22
(88.0%)
2
(8.0%)
6
(24.0%)
0
(0.0%)
0
(0.0%)
25
Asia13
(28.9%)
28
(62.2%)
22
(48.9%)
9
(20.0%)
7
(15.6%)
0
(0.0%)
0
(0.0%)
45
Europe20
(45.5%)
20
(45.5%)
16
(36.4%)
1
(2.3%)
3
(6.8%)
0
(0.0%)
0
(0.0%)
44
Oceania13
(72.2%)
4
(22.2%)
3
(16.7%)
2
(11.1%)
1
(5.6%)
0
(0.0%)
0
(0.0%)
18
Total728879222500182
IDEA

What is surprising, on the other hand, is that for once Zimbabwe isn’t among those countries that offer some digital avenue to exercising one’s constitutional right.

As good as that all is, why hasn’t Zimbabwe moved to make the entire process available online. Well, the answer is…

One antequated clause in the Zimbabwe Electoral Act

In the Zimbabwe Electoral Act [2:13] there is a clause in section 24 that is grossly out of step with the times:

“Any person who wishes to be registered as a voter on the voters roll for any constituency shall complete the appropriate prescribed claim form and submit it to a voter registration officer at any registration office

Provided that a claimant:
(i) may request the assistance of a voter registration officer at the registration office to complete the appropriate prescribed claim form, and the officer shall comply with that request;
(ii) who, in accordance with the proviso to section 23(1), seeks registration in a constituency in which he or she is not resident shall lodge a claim form with the Commission”

The biggest problem with this is that there are only two voter registration centres in Harare, one at Cecil House and the other at Makombe Complex. For perspective, Harare has a population of just under one and a half million (1,330,721) according to Zimstat.

Furthermore, in 2018 there were 746,173 registered voters in Harare at the completion of the fourth phase of in-person Biometric Voter Registration. This means that for the 2023 election, where the number of those who are eligible to vote would have increased, more people will have to make their way to two locations in order to register.

South Africa has done it

As always our neighbours down south are leagues ahead of us. In July this year, the South African government announced the launch of an online voter registration portal.

“The online voter registration facility is part of the Electoral Commission’s on-going commitment to provide greater accessibility and convenience to voters. It follows the implementation of a range of other digital service channels over the past 5 years including online candidate nominations, online special vote applications and online party funding declarations.”

South African Electoral Commision

The first phase of South Africa’s voter accessibility initiative started in 2019 where they made it possible for the electorate to amend and confirm their details. It was called “Click, Check, Confirm” and over 350,000 people used the platform since it was rolled out. And they followed it up with this, a full blow online voter registration portal.

To ensure security the South African government said that there would be security measures like OTP (One-Time Password) verification.

SA’s government said that this move was motivated in part by:

“The Electoral Commission believes the online facility will be a game-changer in promoting voter registration, especially among young and first-time voters. Research and engagements over the years with young eligible voters to better understand their behaviour have frequently identified the lack of online voter registration as a key obstacle.”

All anyone in South Africa needs to do is:

  • Go to https://registertovote.elections.org.za
  • Click “Register to Vote Now”
  • Enter your personal details
  • Enter the One-Time Pin sent to your cellphone
  • Search for your address, or if you are at home, use the current location on your device
  • Take a photo of your ID OR submit a scan of your ID
  • You will receive an SMS within 24 hours confirming your successful registration.

If that process sounds familiar, it is because FBC Bank has a similar method if you want to open an account from the comfort of your own home. However, the process does not include the geographical component. Nevertheless, it’s secure enough because (knocks on wood) there haven’t been any security issues reported.

The pandemic should be used as a pretext for online voter registration

It’s strange that in the age of digitisation, there has yet to be an attempt to bring the voter registration process online in Zimbabwe. Because we all submit out biometric data when we get an ID or passport which means that the government has that data on file. The authorities can verify the information submitted when an online voter registration application is made.

There has never been a better time than now to bring the process online or at the very least put it to the test. However, in saying that there is one problem with online voter registration.

Internet coverage is not equally distributed or consistent across Zimbabwe

As with anything that goes online, the issue of internet services in Zimbabwe crops up and rightly so. For those in a major city getting consistent internet is easier than in smaller cities and towns.

There is also the issue of the cost of data in Zimbabwe. No one needs to be reminded of how expensive it is to access the internet. However, the last issue can be mitigated by the government absorbing that cost for the electorate.

We have seen a number of banking platforms and even our own site zero-rate access. This could be one measure the government could employ to ensure that, at the very least, those with internet coverage won’t have to shell out money to register for an election.

For those who don’t have internet services or smart devices, the situation is more complicated. We have seen announcements of network infrastructure rollouts nationwide without much in the way of an update. To say that every growth point will get good reception before the 2023 election would be wishful thinking.

However, for progress to be made, there needs to be innovation and there might be a solution to this that comes by way of a local startup called FlexFinTx. If you remember earlier this year we reported on its inclusion in the World Economic Forum’s incubator which was where a number of big companies like Twitter passed through.

FLexFinTx is creating sovereign digital identities for those who don’t have access to them. The firm is using the blockchain and says that its solution will not require internet access.

This development could be a starting point for extending the reach of “online” voter registration to those that don’t have smartphones or mobile internet network infrastructure in their area.

Additionally, this development could be a fantastic opportunity for the government to start recognising the work being done by local startups. For too long we have seen the govt go the long way around and across borders to seek solutions to problems locals have been trying to solve.

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5 thoughts on “It’s high time voter registration became available online

  1. The status quo benefits some, so they may not be inclined to change it. Just like we were supposed to have biometric voting, then as things went along, it wasn’t not used for voting. I wouldn’t be amazed if next elections it still isn’t used or coincidentally “glitches”.

  2. Your article omits one critical aspect of Zimbabwean voter registration law, biometrics. Biometric data, mainly fingerprints and passport-size photograph of every voter must be captured on registration.

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