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Making digital ID a tool for inclusion in Cameroon elections

Making digital ID a tool for inclusion in Cameroon elections

Voter registrations are an important challenge for national identity systems, demanding accuracy, completeness, and verifiability to provide the assurance necessary for confidence in democratic elections. Identity systems supporting democracy in emerging economies with large remote and rural populations can present difficulties even with minimal standards for inclusiveness.

For Cameroon, the principle of democracy implies inclusivity in a way the makes it obligatory for ELECAM, the national elections authority, to take the necessary measures to ensure that the voices of all the country’s people, including nomads and those with disabilities, have equal opportunity to participate in its democracy, Patience Fule-Buang Elango, Chief of Public Relations, Public Relations and Communications Section, ELECAM, Cameroon told Biometric Update in an exclusive interview at ID4Africa 2018.

Elango participated in an informational session on the second day of ID4Africa 2018, one of two focusing on “ID & Democracy.” In the sessions, panelists said that typical costs for voter registration of $20 per person make repeated registration economically unsustainable, and therefore recommended that electoral authorities support continuous, not one-off programs for voter rolls. They also noted that the trust provided by biometric systems are particularly necessary for electoral systems that are facing difficult national circumstances, or for elections that are the most contentious, and recommended that a single, trusted source be used for identities.

In conversation after the sessions, Elango pointed out that there are 84 million people in Africa with disabilities, according to the UN, and many more for whom proving identity and casting a vote presents unusual challenges. Biometric identity verification is part of an extensive plan which Cameroon has developed and budgeted for since the foundation of ELECAM to ensure its voting process is inclusive, she says.

“We capture fingerprint and facial biometrics, as well as biographical information, and it all comes together to create a profile for identification, but also to prepare us ahead of time for what we need to do.”

Current records for each of the more than 30,000 people in Cameroon with a disability — and where they will vote — enable resources to be directed to accessibility. That accessibility includes not only access to buildings, but also to ballots and ballot boxes, biometric identity verification, and vote privacy, Elango says.

The decision to enroll 10 fingerprints and facial biometrics was arrived at through extensive consultation between groups from all 360 local councils. When asked if adding iris recognition would help Cameroon’s inclusivity, Elango acknowledges the power of iris recognition, but emphasizes the importance of multi-modality in general.

“It’s important, but at the same time, for iris recognition, you have blind people, those who suffer from cataracts,” she says. “A combination of all of the factors would work, but it depends on the political will and the will of the people. In Cameroon, the kind of biometrics we ended up having was a decision of the people, made through consultations. All the stakeholders came together, and they ended up saying ‘We’re going to go for this, because these are the realities.’”

The country selected biometric technology from GenKey and Veridos to compile and manage its voter rolls. ELECAM uses generators and 8-hour batteries to power its data capturing devices, and motorcycles to reach remote locations. Cameroon’s wide-ranging geography requires it to register people in boats, and in the Korup rainforest, with its alternating intensely dry and wet seasons.

Biometrics also enable people in Cameroon who are illiterate, or who speak and write only a language different from those operating a voting station, to be identified for registration and voting. At the same time, technical processes requiring accurate data capturing could be a barrier to voting for some people, which also weighed into Cameroon’s decision-making.

“You have to create an enabling environment. If you go for biometrics, then make things easy for them. It is their right. They are taxpayers too.”

Part of the way to do that is to provide adequate training for operators to make the biometric voter system work.
“When it comes to the fingerprints, when you enroll, if you lack one or two, the machine interrogates the agent, who has been trained, and he confirms if it is real, and removes the requirement,” Elango explains. “This enables the election process to continue. People of little height, they often have smaller fingers, and it can be a problem for capturing fingerprints, but we are conscious of that.”

Cameroon’s diverse population also includes numerous eligible voters who live either very far from any plausible enrolment center, or even in different locations depending on the time of year. A high degree of grass-roots engagement and communication from the decentralized ELECAM enables remote registration programs to frequently enroll close to full populations during carefully planned remote enrollment missions, Elango says.

“If you have an organization, and you are holding an event, you can write to the office, and we sent out the operators to that place. It’s a proximity thing.”

Elango is enthusiastic in her support for the proposed International Identity Day, which collected over 1,500 signatures over the three days of the event which launched it. She also says that her delegation will present its ideas for how it could be observed to the government on returning to Cameroon, and that she expects support for the official recognition will be strong.

“We have proposals. Its obvious that we’re conscious of our rural population and those who don’t have ID yet. The government has a sense that one of its missions is to sensitize people to facilitate growing the civil registry, so we can’t say no to such a day.”

She also notes the need to be aggressive if the timeline of UN sustainable development goal 16.9, providing legal identity for all by 2030, is to be met. The progress so far, however, makes Elango optimistic.

“This should be a day where we’re going to handle a lot of capacity building, a lot of information, and celebrate our lives, if I was asked.”

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