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On the 31st of March, 2017, the Nigerian Senate passed the Electoral Act No. 6 2010 (Amendment) Bill 2017 into law. This bill gives the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) the power to conduct Electronic Voting (E-voting).

“The passage of this Bill in the Senate is a bold, innovative and common sense step on Electoral Reforms designed to guarantee free, fair and credible elections in Nigeria,” said the Senate President, Bukola Saraki on his Facebook page.

Earlier in February INEC Chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, appeared before the Senate Committee on Finance to defend the commission’s 2017 budget. He was questioned on the commission’s readiness to adopt E-voting. Mahmood explained that until the constitution was amended and necessary logistics put in place, INEC could not delve into the subject of E-voting. He described E-voting as not only lacking constitutional backing but also expensive to execute. Two months later, the Senate has made a constitutional amendment to the electoral act, but new concerns have been raised about E-voting.

Can INEC handle the technological challenges of E-voting?

The bill raises the question of Nigeria’s readiness to plunge into this new technology-based terrain. Proponents of the bill are inclined to believe that it will give credibility to our elections while cynics think Nigeria is yet to come to terms with using this technology for elections. These positions may have been gathered from INEC’s performance with the voter’s card readers during the last general elections in 2015 when INEC decided to adopt smart card readers for voters’ accreditation.

Initially, this innovation was welcomed in many quarters, but it was later met with scepticism and opposition from some civil society organisations and political parties. The performance of card readers during the 2015 elections was not as smooth as Nigerians would have hoped. Issues of malfunction of machines, battery failure and incompetence on the part of the personnel trailed the elections. It was not a resounding success but it opened the way for discussion on the use of technology in enhancing our elections.

Handling cyber attacks

Cyber-attacks have emerged as a new threat to information technology systems around the world. INEC’s website was hacked in 2015 by a group that calls itself ‘Nigeria Cyber Army’. Consequently, the use of the internet for the E-voting will expose INEC to further attacks. Even the strongest nations in the world are not immune to it. The accusations by America that Russia meddled in its presidential election that delivered Donald Trump as president comes to mind. The threat of cyber-attacks will be real, as real as the nightmare of desperate politicians snatching ballot boxes and rigging the elections. INEC will have to assure Nigerians that it has the capability to withstand cyber assaults on the new voting system if such attempts are made.

Assessing the cost of E-voting

In passing the bill, the Senate will have considered the cost implication of adopting the electronic voting option in the 2019 general elections. As it stands, the 2015 election is Nigeria’s costliest election owing to the use of card readers. So, in addition to the cost of printing ballot papers, which will still be used, factor in personnel training, the cost of public enlightenment campaign, payment for hackers and other sundry expenses, the cost of conducting an election is set to increase with the importation or adaptation of this new technology. Although the Federal Government has projected the second quarter of 2017 for the end of the recession, such economic recovery may not guarantee INEC the funds to kickstart such an innovation.

Will Nigerians accept this new innovation?

After its implementation, the true test of success for electronic voting should lie in the drastic reduction of election petitions cases. This will imply that politicians and Nigerians alike will be ready to accept the outcome of the elections when the time comes. This will be a huge positive step in ensuring transparency, if it can be achieved.

It is safe to say that INEC may not get it right entirely when the time comes for electronic voting but the experience from the performance of the card readers should serve as a guide to getting right the electronic voting process. Credit must also be accorded the 8th senate for taking this bold step in electoral reform.

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