Amid all the heartbreak and hardship it is hard to imagine any good at all coming out of the COVID-19 crisis – but around the world, the pandemic is forcing governments to finally move on from out-dated political practices and do democracy differently.
In the United Kingdom, we have seen the national government holding press conferences, public hearings, parliamentary debates, committees, and even votes via video link.
Russia is said to be actively considering online voting.
Nigeria is no different.
The Independent National Electoral Commission this week announced that it intends to “pilot the use of Electronic Voting Machines at the earliest possible time… (and) work towards the full introduction of electronic voting in major elections starting from 2021.”
This development would probably not have happened were it not for INEC having to design socially-distanced elections to keep officials and voters safe in the time of the coronavirus.
Necessity is the mother of invention. On this occasion, it might also be the midwife of a more effective democracy for Nigeria.
As the head of a campaign to make Nigeria Africa’s first truly digital democracy, I believe that this is a huge step forward for improving the credibility of elections in the eyes of Nigerian voters.
Nigeria has the worst voter turnout in West Africa – with almost half the number of voters turning up to vote in last year’s presidential election than did in Ghana’s most recent contest.
Any things are getting worse. The turnout in the last Nigerian General Election was just 35% – all-but half the 69% it was in 2003.
Why? Well, as one international commentator put it: “The average Nigerian voter does not believe her vote will count. She has been scarred by years of violence, rigging, and predictability. The numbers reflect this”.
Electronic voting can be the first step towards reversing that decline.
Using electronic voting machines, Nigerian voters can have much more confidence that the vote really was cast for their candidate they intended to vote for – or has been counted at all. Ballot-stuffing could also become a thing of the past under a truly transparent system where every vote can be electronically accounted for.
As for predictability, it is no secret that this is another reason why Nigerians can be so reluctant to vote. As the INEC policy statement itself points out, only 10 per cent of all bye-elections since 2015 led to a change in result. In an election where the result is a foregone conclusion, many Nigerians see simply no point in voting – even if their favoured candidate is the one guaranteed to win!
Electronic voting was trialled in Kaduna state in 2018 and the results were impressive.
Governor Nasir El-Rufai was praised for his state’s efforts to promote transparency and electoral integrity, voters even found the process of voting quicker and faster – which may also encourage them to vote (nobody wants to queue!)
Even more, strikingly four Kaduna elections were won by the opposition rather than the incumbents. People knew their vote would have an impact. So they voted.
Electronic voting could be a crucial first step in restoring Nigerian’s trust in the democratic process. And trust can be a scarce commodity in Nigerian politics.
That is the thought behind the Digital Democracy campaign I head. We created the free Rate Your Leader app to use smartphone technology to allow elected officials to interact directly with confirmed voters in the divisions they serve.
This way politicians and people can engage person-to-person, understanding each other’s needs and positions. And voters can even rate their politicians for their transparency and accessibility.
And believe me, all it can take sometimes to build trust is person-to-person contact.
I remember one local politician telling me about how a voter rang him up in fury to complain that the local government was investing money instead of spending it on local services.
The politician just pointed out that no government spends all of its cash the same day it gets it. When it knows it has money it doesn’t have to spend for several months it puts it in a savings account and uses the interest to pay for more local services. The voter actually went away delighted that his local government was being so savvy with its money!
Democracy is digital. More Nigerians own a smartphone than vote. So why stop there? Could Nigeria become one of the first nations on Earth to embrace allowing voters to actually vote from home?
Realistically, not enough Nigerians have reliable enough broadband to make this possible – yet.
But if electronic voting is a sensible first step, innovations like this should be our long-term aspiration.
Joel Popoola is a Nigerian tech entrepreneur, digital democracy campaigner, and creator of the Rate Your Leader app.