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Biometric voter enrollment engenders rewards and risks

Categories Editorials  |  Elections  |  Industry Insights

Ensuring quick and precise voter enrollment and identification is the cornerstone of any credible election. Biometric systems are increasingly being deployed in the developing world with the aim to ensure a fair and efficient electoral process.

In rich countries, almost everyone has a reliable form of official identification, and biometric technology has traditionally been employed mainly for security and forensics. However, many developing countries suffer from an identity gap where millions of people lack official forms of identification, including birth certificates, national ID cards, and voter cards, which would allow them to access basic services and rights, such as voting.

Closing this “identification gap” has been increasingly recognized as a major goal of economic and social development in developing countries. Just as mobile phones have allowed poorer countries to leapfrog past landline phone connections, biometrics have the potential to help solve identification woes while bypassing the paper-based systems often found in the so-called developed world.

Such biometric systems can include solutions for voter registration, voting, tallying and identification. Common modalities include fingerprint, palm vein, iris and facial recognition. In theory, by using biometric identifiers, the potential of election fraud is minimized, while the voter identification process is accelerated.

In the vast majority of countries where biometrics have been used in voter registration, the motivation for using biometrics has been to “de-duplicate” an election register. Biometric identification helps prevents multiple registrations and also prevents the registration of disqualified voters. For these reasons, the use of biometrics for voter registration has been a popular option exercised by governments throughout Latin America and increasingly in Africa, as indicated in many BiometricUpdate.com articles.

Electors often register multiple times for multiple reasons. The most nefarious reason is for the purpose of voting several times in the hope of influencing an election result or destabilizing the election process. A more common reason is that many election registration processes have not been designed to easily allow for a change of address, causing many electors to re-register without having their existing record concurrently deleted. A registration system tied to biometric authentication could eliminate this problem, as only a singular registration could be associated with a biometric characteristic.

Any well-designed registration process must be able to eliminate instances of multiple enrollment to curb voter fraud. Emerging democracies and countries with chronic electoral problems recognize this. For this reason, a growing number of African countries have opted to use biometric voter registries including Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Nigeria. In Asia, the Solomon Islands and the Philippines have also deployed such technology. These countries see the benefit of biometric technology as an effective tool for strengthening democracy through establishing legal identities for all individuals, thus facilitating access to fair elections.

Developing countries however need to take caution as the use of these biometric identification technologies can concurrently raise serious human right concerns. Such technologies are often deployed in a legal void since constitutionally-guaranteed privacy rights are often not respected in practice. Further, sophisticated data protection safeguards are often simply not-existent in developing countries due to a lack of resources.

Biometric technology also provides the data and tools that can assist in mass surveillance and the profiling of populations. The poor regulation of biometric data can be used for unintended purposes, which can lead to discrimination. As a consequence, developing countries need to carefully plan the implementation of biometric voter enrollment systems. The most important consideration is ensuring that the electoral process is administered independent of executive and legislative branches, and that the technology is used only for electoral purposes.

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