In the wake of Zimbabwe’s disputed reelection of Robert Mugabe, it is alleged that dead voters accounted for one-third of the voter rolls, that 63 constituencies had more registered voters than actual inhabitants even though 2 million potential voters under 30 went unregistered. The elections have left many asking if biometrics are the future of voting. But if biometrics had been used in the voter registration process, would the election results have been more accurate? Would the election results have been different?
Maybe. Voter registration is a critical part of elections: it establishes each citizen as a stakeholder in the political processes of a country. Biometrics can help add integrity to voter registration and at the polling station by ensuring that each voter is in fact who they say they are.
And it has proven successful in some cases. In Rwanda’s 2008 elections, voter registration was linked to a census and civil-registry enrollment conducted in 2007. Roughly 9.2 million citizens (4.8 million voters) were covered. This system has been used in elections since 2008, apparently successfully.
But implementing new technology brings its own host of issues. Take Kenya—its electoral board registered 14.3 million eligible voters four months before its March 2013 elections, but within hours of opening the polls the biometric voter identification system failed, reportedly because of power outages and inadequate batteries, among other factors. Experiences like that can make voters skeptical of the technology and even more distrustful of political processes.
Whether a country can successfully implement a biometric system is a concern; whether biometrics is the right answer to the country’s problems is a bigger one. Technology cannot itself instill trust or help foster open dialogue and civic responsibility. Ultimately, elections are a part of a political process that involves more than just an accurate voter roll. Other things can skew results: unequal access to media coverage, or manipulation of polling stations. The same technology could be used to disenfranchise voters on the basis of their ethnicity, religion, or income groups. Technology itself cannot solve problems that have their roots in the political culture of a country.
In the case of Zimbabwe, allegations of rigging tactics as well as of overly frequent election day “assistance” may have swayed the vote. Biometric voter-registration would not have helped in these areas. It can be a step toward more accurate elections, but it alone will not solve deeper political problems.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.