Election and Technology: Will the Biometric Voting Save Democracy in Afghanistan?

The fourth presidential election after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was held on September 28. The use of Biometrics Voters Verification (BVV) and voter lists were the most distinctively novel features of the 2019 presidential election.

Around 9.6 million people registered to vote and the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission (AEIC) had set October 19 to announce the preliminary result of the election. However, despite the euphoria of having the technology to ensure transparency and efficiency in the election, It is almost more than a month since the election was held and neither the exact number of the credible voters nor the preliminary results have been announced.

Shocking news soon leaked into the country revealing that the locks of the doors of the Data Server of AIEC, where biometric data was kept, were found broken. 

Initially, the Independent Election Commission had denied any such incident. However, a day later on October 22 the AIEC member, Raheema Zarifi, announced the confirmation of the intrusion into the Data Server room of biometric devices at a press conference, and said that an investigation into the incident had been launched.

The presidential candidates blamed the incumbent President Ashraf Ghani, who is attempting to hold the office for another five-year term. Speaking at a press conference, Ali Ahmad Osmani, the head of the opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah’s election campaign claimed that “members of the rival team have also accompanied the security forces while they have entered into the data centre”.

Weeks later, November 14 was determined as the new day for the preliminary result announcement, by the Head of Afghanistan Independent Election Commission, Hawa Alam Nuristani. The delay in announcing the preliminary result of the presidential election frustrated the candidates and people, raising their suspicions about potential behind-the-door manipulation of the final result.

The technology in use

The previous presidential elections were marred with massive fraud and ballot stuffing. For example, the presidential election in 2014 was damaged by extensive systematic fraud, which resulted in a powering sharing deal between the two top candidates.

To create transparency and accountability in voting, the political parties deemed the use of BVV imperative to prevent any fraud in the election. The idea of using BVV technology guarantees the candidates that the election will be transparent and provides the people who are risking their lives, defying the Taliban threats and voting to elect the candidate of their choice with reassurance that their vote is fairly administered and meaningful.

The method used in the 2019 election is a combination of manual voting and the BVV machines. The BVV did not replace the old system, but has been applied as an additional anti-fraud measure.

At the polling station, a voter’s biometric data is registered before the voters cast their votes. The data is then entered into a central database, printed and attached in encrypted form to the ballot paper. According to the IEC, this will enable them to identify those who vote more than once and to invalidate duplicate votes and ballots that are without biometric verification sticker or that have fraudulent voter details.

Elections since 2001

The election of the president in Afghanistan may have shortcomings, though it has achieved a tremendous goal of rooting out the use of violence to resolve political conflict to some extent. The presidential election in 2004 was destroyed by violence and allegations of fraud. In the presidential election 2004, millions of voters were listed with around 11,612,771 registered and the final voters’ turnout recorded as 8,128,940. Out of which 60 per cent were men and 40 per cent were women. Nonetheless, the fraud perpetrated failed to receive as much attention both nationally and internationally as it did in 2009. Hence, President Hamid Karzai was declared as the victor.

Dr. Abdullah Abdullah who claimed to have succeeded in the 2019 election first appeared as a presidential candidate in the presidential election held in Afghanistan on 20 August 2009. The 2009 election was characterised by a lack of security, low voter turnout and the electorate’s little knowledge about the election process. Cases of widespread corruption, intimidation, and other electoral fraud, forced a second-round run-off vote, under the heavy US and ally pressure. However, the runoff was canceled after Abdullah refused to participate citing the lack of transparency in the election process. The voter’s turn out in the 2009 Presidential Election was 4,823,090.

The 2014 presidential election was a big landmark in the nascent democratic system in Afghanistan with its first projected peaceful transfer of power from President Hamid Karzai to an elected successor since 2001. The 2014 election saw an increase in voter participation across the country, with an additional 1,302,143 votes cast for a total of 7,947,527 votes. With a total voting population of approximately 25,354,494, Afghanistan witnessed a 31.35% voter turnout for the runoff election, versus 26.2 per cent during the first election.

After the runoff election, Afghanistan descended into chaos as both Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, accused each other of fraud, which sent the US Secretary of State John Kerry to work out a compromise solution. Thus the top two contenders Dr. Ghani and Dr.Abdullah formed the “unity government” sharing power; Ghani was made President and Abdullah was made the country’s newly created position of Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

2019 Presidential Election

On October 3, the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission (AIEC) reported that the number of votes cast on September 28 throughout Afghanistan were 2,695,890. They added: “the numbers could change after the verification of invalidated biometric votes”.

After failing to announce the preliminary result on time, Hawa Alam Nuristani Head of Afghanistan Election Commission said “We are not sacrificing quality for the sake of speed. We are committed to the quality result of the presidential election in 2019.”

Although it was criticized by the presidential candidates, however, the US Ambassador John R. Bass wrote on his twitter that the Afghanistan IEC “is fully implementing anti-fraud measures before announcing preliminary results in the #AfghanElections. We agree it is better to release an accurate result instead of a rushed one. Urge all candidates to support the independence of the process”.

On October 26, AIEC member Mawlana Mohammad Abdullah announced that around 900,000 to 770,000  of the votes cast would be invalidated based on the electoral law of Afghanistan, which lacked legal biometrics. The German company Dermalog which provided the BVV technology sent all voter information to the IEC. On the same day, the commission released new vote numbers, saying that the Dermalog Company had identified 1,843,107 valid votes out of the 1,929,333 votes already transferred to the commission’s central database.

Officials in the Independent Election Commission (IEC) said on October 31 that 47,000 cases of underage, duplicate photos, and photos taken of photos had been detected by the Dermalog server and shared with the IEC which would further be invalidated as well. Speaking at a press conference, Mawlana Abdullah said the commission is now waiting for cases of duplicate fingerprints and biometric data captured before 7 am and 5 pm.

According to presidential candidate Dr. Abdullah’s campaign team, “there are 137,000 fraudulent votes and they must invalidate”. But the Election Commission said Dermalog will provide an explanation on the 137,000 votes in the next two days. “These 137,000 votes were sent to the commission’s database only one day after the elections, and these votes are fake” added a member of the campaign team.

“The Council of Presidential Candidates believes that if there is even one fraudulent vote and someone makes his way to the president’s office with that fake vote then this will not be acceptable,” said presidential candidate Shahab Hakimi.

Could technology restore the lost faith in the Election Commission?

Although the biometric technology was brought to end corruption and to ensure the voters that their votes would bring the most voted candidate to the Office, the scenarios unfolding and the delays make the actions of the AIEC more dubious. The utilization of biometric devices was not without any problem, the first was the lack of awareness of how to use it. The second was a number of biometric devices were lost only to be found later.

One of the election observers who goes only by first name Mansoor said “despite the BVV technology being used, the voter’s turnout was very low”, “one could see in every 10 to 15 minutes a voter would come up in a polling centre”, he further added. “The voting procedure has substantially improved, but it will be interesting to see what the final result will be and how the AIEC will handle the outcome” he further added.

“Even though the biometric device was used it will be very difficult to restore the people’s confidence in the Election Commission especially with the way they handle the current election,” said a political and security analyst who preferred to remain anonymous. “The voter’s turnout was the lowest since 2001, nonetheless, the AIEC has still not been able to announce the initial result.” “Initially the turnout numbers were around two million 600 thousand, it has since reduced to 1.8 million, it will further cut by few hundred thousand and the actual number will be just slightly above a million vote”, he further added.

The number of people registered to vote was around 9.6 million people, it the lowest percentage of a voter casting their vote on Election Day since 2004. Had the AIEC managed the election in a professional and timely manner, it would have helped in building confidence over the institutions but it has further made people uncertain about the progressive transfer of power in Afghanistan.