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Report blames biometrics for Mozambique poll irregularities; Laxton hits back

Categories Biometrics News  |  Elections  |  ID for All  |  In Depth
Report blames biometrics for Mozambique poll irregularities; Laxton hits back

An investigative report has demonstrated that irregularities persist in elections in Africa despite the governments presenting election technology such as biometrics registration and verification systems as some sort of a panacea for fraud. A response from Laxton, the country’s biometric voter registration technology supplier, refutes many of the central points of the report.

The report, which is the second in a series, specifically looks at the case of Mozambique where results have been reportedly truncated despite a biometric voter registration system being in place since 2008.

The system has been presented to the public as a major step towards guaranteeing the transparency of polls in the country.

Published by Bloomberg (subscription needed) and Lighthouse Reports, the article is the second in a series Bloomberg calls “Africa’s Failed Biometrics,” and follows an instalment on the use of biometric national ID by Uganda’s government to surveil and repress its opposition. The report on Mozambique paints the scenario of how local elections in the Lusophone country led to disappointment and distrust in 2023 after results of the election came out to be different from what some people expected.

The article recalls how in preparations of the polls, the country’s government spent millions of U.S. dollars procuring biometric voting equipment including hardware and software.

And despite the resources and the efforts put in by the government and the collaboration of the people through massive participation in the biometric voter registration, the elections ended up being trailed by irregularities and complaints.

Since 2008, the country has a biometric voter system in each election cycle, it reportedly spends huge sums of money from its already squeezed coffers to procure biometric voting gear.

It is suggested in the report that contracts to purchase election equipment are among the most expensive in the country which is among the poorest in the world. Some of the contacts are said to be awarded to wealthy businessmen close to the Frelimo party, which has been the party in power since the late 1970s.

Per the report, officials of the ruling party, in the last municipal elections, manipulated election equipment supplied for the 2023 local polls and this year’s presidential election by a consortium made up of Artes Gráficas and Laxton, with the result being to tweak the election results to its favour. The alleged manipulation sometimes included deliberately switching off registration kits to turn away voters identified as not belonging to the ruling party.

These two companies first executed their first contract for biometric equipment supply for Mozambique in 2018, and the price at which they supplied equipment for the 2023 and 2024 elections has been described as exorbitant and some of the registration kits proving to be slow. Also, the 2023 contract is said to have been awarded to the duo without any competitive tender, raising questions about the transparency of the procurement.

But an unnamed Laxton spokesman is quoted in the report as describing some of the allegations as “isolated incidents” which “do not reflect the overall success and reliability of the system” supplied to the country. Another from Artes Graficas defended the introduction of the new and more expensive voter ID cards, which have been designed differently from the ones used during the 2018 polls. Laxton also reportedly had issues of financing with its biometric registration contract in Liberia, but the company later said its partnership with neurotechnology helped offer a credible voter registration database for the country’s 2023 elections.

For some in Mozambique, including a diplomat anonymously cited in the report, there’s nothing more to biometric election systems in Mozambique than “a way for …companies to make money.”

Apart from reported irregularities in last year’s election which the ruling party won with a smashing majority, Bloomberg also recalls the scenario in the 2018 polls which was also won by the ruling party, but with some observer missions like that of the EU picking serious issues with the voter registration process.

Laxton responds

When contacted for comment by Biometric Update, Laxton executives suggested the report is influenced by opposition propaganda.

“Cherry picked sensational opinions by opposition forces are quoted to achieve an agenda,” Laxton said in an emailed communication that refutes many of the central claims in the report.

Election day scenarios referred to by Bloomberg and Lighthouse, like ballot stuffing, would represent abuse of a manual, paper-based voting system, and are not a problem with voter registration, Laxton says.

The company notes that the report ignores the involvement of both major opposition parties in national elections bodies.

Further, Mozambique’s biometric voter registration made 3 million more people than before eligible to vote, which Laxton says is a democratic inclusion victory “suspiciously ignored in the reporting.”

There are other details Laxton says need to be considered.

“The public availability of the voter roll, and the 15-day exhibition window allow any member of the public to challenge and verify the registration data,” Laxton says in its lengthy statement. “The physically printed voters roll and voter cards are audit trails that both exist outside the technology system. Biometric voter registration is in reality a highly open, transparent and regulated process as registered voter lists are public documents.”

The article’s suggestion that equipment is not reused from one election cycle to the next is “demonstrably false,” Laxton says. “Part of the scope of our contract was to refurbish and upgrade as much of the old 2018/2019 equipment as possible for re-use it in 2023/2024 cycle.”

The company also disputes the characterization of its equipment as “fragile,” “slow,” or “cumbersome,” providing photographs of biometric voter registration kits in transport to remote areas with challenging environmental conditions.

A reference to a previous contract for $24 million, much lower than the 2022 contract, is intentionally misleading, according to Laxton, as the lower-cost contract was for only a portion of the work and period in question.

The “manipulation” the report refers to includes normal occurrences like power outages and jammed printers that lead to “regular support tickets,” Laxton says. Suggestions that power was purposefully and systematically disconnected ignores the presence of representatives of all three major parties at every station in Mozambique.

The claim that “the same people and the same Mozambican companies,” are involved in biometric registration equipment procurement is rubbished by Laxton, which cites the supply of equipment in 2013 and 2014 by Lithotech and GenKey, and of power systems by another vendor in 2018-2019.

Laxton challenges the statement by an election observer Bloomberg quotes that equipment was manipulated and Laxton technicians were aware of it, saying no evidence backs up the sensational claim.

An event involving a Laxton technician refereeing a dispute about electrical supply is “clearly a fabricated event,” according to Laxton, and continuous voter registration is planned, nullifying arguments about the voter cards issued having no use following the election.

In short, while Mozambique’s electoral system may have flaws, Laxton says the biometric voter registration system is not among them.

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