Joseph Stalin, the Russian Dictator, once famously stated “I consider it completely unimportant who (in the party) will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this – who will count the votes, and how.”
The “who counts the votes” by implication being important, according to Stalin, because of their ability to manipulate the vote in favour of their preferred candidate. In the old cartoon illustrated here the point is made all the more clear.
In a genuine democracy, the integrity and independence of the modern “vote counter”, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), would seek to guard against not only actual manipulation of votes but importantly the public perception of the possibility of such a manipulation. At the centre of the confidence that the public has in the IEC is the integrity and trust that is placed in it. The IEC and its partners must act in a manner that is beyond reproach.
On May 8, the IEC issued an extraordinary press statement, it called for hackers to attend a presentation to hack the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in order to quell the growing concerns, raised by the opposition and the public as to the lack of confidence in them. The press statement published on the Botswana Government Facebook page stated that “The session will be attended by Political Parties representatives, Information Technology (IT) experts, Political Analysts and Academics with expertise on IT, Media and Civil Society. The demonstration session will offer an opportunity for those with the know how to disrupt, hack and compromise the secure performance of the machines to do so.”
While the inherent risk to national security of opening the electoral system to hacking is cause for concern, the government press statement went viral in India, where political parties and experts have long sought access to the Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) made machines to prove to the public their vulnerability to manipulation.
In India, government, their equivalent to our IEC and BEL, have denied such access and public demonstrations of hacking in the strongest possible terms. In 2010 Hari Prasad, a security researcher and IT expert was arrested and detained for obtaining an EVM and subsequently proving, with the assistance of the University of Michigan in the United States, that the machines were capable of manipulation and hacking. The University of Michigan professors who assisted in the exposé into the vulnerabilities of the EVMs subsequently offered to address the public and the Indian IEC on their findings. They were however prevented from doing so due to fears over their arrest and deportations from India, given the push back by government.
The Botswana Government Press statement inviting hackers to actively demonstrate the vulnerability of the machines, and have access to their workings incited numerous calls for IT specialists in India to travel to Botswana to register for the demonstration. This publication can confirm that they were approached by various persons claiming to be experts in the field to assist them to register for the IEC government “hackathon”.
The Botswana Gazette, in accordance with the invitation by the IEC, wrote to the “Co-ordinator” to register as a participant in the “hackathon” and further requesting access to the machines to show their vulnerability. Among the requests made was access to the source code imbedded in the main processing unit of the EVM’s in order to establish its integrity and security. The IEC did not respond to this publication’s request in writing.
Given the secrecy surrounding the machines in their country of origin however, and in particular given the concerns raised by their manufacturers, it was not surprising that on May 15, BEL issued a total denial of being involved or allowing any such demonstration. In BEL’s press statement, unusually, one can only assume due to the importance of the statement, issued by non-other than M V Gowtama the company’s Chairman & Managing Director, the company did not only deny that they were involved in the IEC event and that they would not avail machines for the “hackathon” but flatly stated that the IEC and the Botswana Government was lying to the public.
The BEL statement which concludes “Therefore, Press Note issued by Botswana Election Commission is without our approval / consent and facts stated therein are completely false and incorrect” is a damning condemnation on the integrity of the IEC and calls into question the IEC’s motives behind the introduction of the EVM. It raises more questions in the public domain as to the viability of EVM’s and the Government of the day’s role in their introduction.
On May 18, the day of the “hackathon” this publication together with IT experts, attended the Seleetso demonstration. This publication was denied access to the EVM’s source code and contrary to the IEC press statement we were not allowed to try and hack or manipulate the machines. The demonstration used a machine sourced from Namibia, allegedly with the same configuration as the one to be used in Botswana to demonstrate its working capabilities. The internal dynamics of the machine were strictly off limits. The unnamed representatives of BEL, would not engage in discussion of the machines proven vulnerabilities other than to state that they were not capable of being manipulated.
In December last year the Pubic Procurement and Assets and Disposal Board (PPADP), authorised the IEC to engage in a direct tender with Bharat Electronics Limited India (BEL) to purchase Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) without going for public tender. No local tenders were floated and the public was not engaged on whether they wanted electronic voting to be introduced, nor in the event that they did want the machines, on their requirements.
Speaking at a press conference in October 2016, Seleetso, on behalf of the IEC, laid the blame for the lack of consultation with the public on government. He indicated that the IEC had not engaged the public because “IEC would not have conducted consultation about the machines because it was not a law yet. It is only now, when the bill has become a law that we will engage citizens about the changes because we’re compelled to do so by the Act.”
Speaking at a Botswana Council of Non-Governmental Organsiations (BOCONGO) held event on the evening of May 18, Botswana Democratic Party Secretary General Botsalo Ntuane informed the attendees as well as opposition member of parliament Dithapelo Lefoko Keorapetse and Botswana National Front activist Nelson Ramaotwana, that the introduction of EVM’s was not a creation of the BDP. According to Ntuane the proposal for their introduction was made to the minister by the IEC.
Seleetso and Ntuane’s positions are at odds with each other. Had the IEC proposed the changes then it ought to have engaged the public, Seleetso however has previously stated that they did not do so because government drove the legislation not the IEC. Conversely the BDP says the IEC drove the reform not themselves. Once again the integrity of the IEC is being brought into question.
Ntuane went further to acknowledge that there were problems with the legislation that introduced the EVM’s and that they as a party required to reassess the legislation to address the growing public concerns over the machines. Taking ownership of the EVM legislation Ntuane indicated that “We will not distance ourselves from a law that was voted for by the BDP majority caucus. We appreciate that there are clauses that must be revisited. Give us time to ventilate. We will make a decision at congress with the interests of this nation at heart.”
The Electoral Amendment Act, which introduced the EVMs was passed in parliament on a motion of urgency in July 2016. It passed into law with a spate of other legislation after a marathon parliamentary session that ended at 4am, despite numerous objections from the opposition for there to be proper time availed for consultation with the public and a determination whether there was need for the machines introduction in the first place.
It is interesting to note that BDP now seeks to engage in consultation at its congress, a year after the legislation was introduced to address the concerns the public has been raising. As the government of the day one would have expected both the IEC and the BDP to have been fully alive to the implications of the legislation and had the answers available to deal with the criticism of EVM’s that have been so prevalent in India and other jurisdictions for over 10 years.
The legitimacy of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is central to the integrity of national elections and while the IEC cannot bestow legitimacy on itself by claiming its own independence; such considerations are for the public and others to do not and not the IEC itself, they are certainly capable of raising serious doubts as to their legitimacy. With the call for the hackathon, which turned out to be more than a farce, with government and the IEC being told that they are making false statements by their partner in the venture; and with the constant shifting of responsibility between government and the IEC over the hugely unpopular introduction of EVM’s the IEC has shown that it lacks integrity.
There is need for an electoral reform. The IEC needs to become truly independent as it was intended to be and move away from the office of the president where it is subject to interference.