Anticipating, overcoming challenges of BVR system

“I cast my vote.” A woman poses for a picture after voting in Uzumba at Gapara in Murehwa North contituency on July 31. Picture: Cynthia R Matonhodze

IN the last piece, we made a case for the adoption of a Bio-metric Voter Registration system (BVR) in Zimbabwe. In stating the case for a new system of voter registration, it is important to restate the principal problem: It is about finding the best way to ensure that those who are eligible to vote are the only ones who actually vote on polling day.


The voter registration system is designed to achieve this purpose, as it is a record of those who are eligible to vote. However, we also observed that the current manual, paper-based system is fraught with many problems which have in the past led to the disenfranchisement of a significant number of voters.

It is against this background that BVR system was proposed on the basis that it is more robust, secure and less prone to cheating than other methods. An inefficient manual system has been one of the principal causes of problems affecting the credibility of the electoral system. A new BVR system will help to eliminate most of the problems associated with the old system, including the problem of “ghost voters”.


Nevertheless, it is important to take precautionary and pre-emptive measures in order to minimise problems that may come with the BVR system, because, like any other system, it is not perfect. This article considers the challenges of the BVR system and how they can be overcome, or at least minimised.

The first challenge is the cost of adopting the BVR system. The necessary infrastructure for the BVR system, including BVR kits for registration, requires heavy initial investment. These kits include laptops, cameras and scanners. Kenya, which is a far bigger country needed 150 000 such kits when it rolled out its registration process in 2012. There is also need for central storage of data and other key equipment for the system. It is necessary, therefore, to ensure there is sufficient funding for the BVR system. In this regard, Zimbabwe should work with development partners such as the UNDP for assistance in rolling out such a system.

The second issue is time, because there is need for sufficient lead-time between setting up and implementing the BVR system and the election itself. When Kenya used the BVR system for the first time in the 2013 elections, problems arose from the lack of time in which the system was set up. It was implemented just a few months before the elections. Zimbabwe ought to avoid similar challenges because the system needs to be tested in a pilot scheme first, to ensure that it works.
It is two years now before the next election and in that same period a mandatory delimitation exercise must be carried out.

A necessary contingency measure is to ensure that there is a manual back-up system, just in case there is irreparable breakdown of the system during the election. This means as data is collected and stored electronically during BVR, there is also a back-up system to resort to in the event of a systems failure. This will enable the smooth-running of the system regardless of any systems failure.

The third issue is transparency in the procurement of BVR infrastructure. Who provides the services and how they are hired is critical in building trust in the BVR system and the entire electoral system. It is important to avoid corruption or controversy and to ensure there is an open process which has integrity and credibility. The entire system could be jeopardised by negative association with organisations that cannot be trusted. Companies that have been involved on the election process and have earned a bad reputation ought to be avoided.

The fourth issue is training of staff to implement and run the BVR system. This includes staff who will carry out biometric voter registration and those who will conduct elections. There is need for competent technical staff who will ensure the system works or is repaired in case of breakdown. The failure of equipment is one of the key challenges experienced in other countries like Kenya and Ghana which have used the BVR system. All this requires time and resources. In this case, Zimbabwe could benefit from synergies with other countries that have already taken the BVR route.

The fifth issue relates to voter education. The Constitution already requires ZEC to promote voter education. Civic bodies can also assist in these exercises.
There is need for joint work and collaboration between Zec and civil society groups which invest in the development of a stronger democracy. We at ZESN are already keenly involved in and have experience in the area of voter education and we stand ready to work with Zec in promoting BVR. Other civic groups will join in and play a key role in this area. People will need to understand and appreciate the need for and workings of the BVR system.

As stated in the first article, no system is ever perfect and this applies to the BVR system, too. Problems can occur due to changes in the physical characteristics that are used for biometric purposes. For example, cuts to the finger may distort the finger print. Nevertheless, studies have shown that while false rejection rates occur in the operation of the system — where a registered voter is rejected because biometric data does not match — these are much less when a voter is allowed to try multiple times. In addition, while there is a possibility of false acceptance rates, where an impostor is accepted by the system, chances of this happening are usually one in 10. The fact that 9 times out of 10 the impostor will fail is usually as a good deterrent against impostors trying to cheat the system.

The purpose of this article has been to demonstrate an appreciation of the challenges that can affect the BVR system and to encourage pre-emptive measures to minimise the incidence and effect of these challenges. It requires heavy initial investment, but it provides a more robust system that enhances the credibility of elections. There are various methods of identifying a voter, to ensure that the person who is voting is who they are. However, it is now increasingly recognised that of all the methods, BVR would be the hardest to cheat if done properly and in accordance with internationally accepted standards and principles of voter registration.


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