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Why technical breakdowns in the Nigerian election raise questions about monitoring

- March 30, 2015

On Saturday, millions of Nigerians turned out to vote in what is expected to be a closely fought election. Throughout the day, there were multiple reports of technical glitches in the voting process, particularly the failure of electronic voter card readers, which act to verify voters. Prominent Nigerian journalist Tolu Ogunlesi even reported President Goodluck Jonathan and his wife encountered a failed machine:

An analyst reported the president was eventually accredited to vote, but through a manual registry verification, not via the electronic voter card reader.


Verification via the voter card reader was only the beginning of the voting process, which in total may only take “60 secs” to explain, but for many people took a full day to realize.

What does voter card reader failure have to do with election monitors — those people lurking in polling stations and tally centers wearing special polo shirts or vests and carrying clipboards, writing down their observations that will later be triangulated in a report that will say whether the election was “free and fair”?

The presence of an election monitor could reduce the chance that voting technology will be reported as having failed. In research conducted during the 2012 Ghanaian elections, political scientists Miriam Golden, Eric Kramon, and George Ofosu found polling stations with election observers were half as likely to experience biometric identification machine breakdown as polling stations without observers. This was particularly true in parliamentary constituencies that were very competitive.

I thought of the Ghana research findings when I saw this from Tolu Ogunlesi:

Once the results are finally counted for the Nigerian election, I’ll be curious to know if there is any association between voter card reader failures in places where there were few, if any, election monitors.

If there’s anything we should be learning about the deployment of biometric technology, it is that technology is not a panacea for improving electoral integrity.