Namibia is to become the first African country to use electronic voting machines in a general election, after the Windhoek high court dismissed a legal challenge by an opposition political party.
The Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP) filed an urgent court application to seek the annulment and postponement of the presidential and National Assembly elections scheduled for this Friday, arguing that the machines violate Namibia’s newly amended Electoral Act because they leave no paper trail.
The party was joined in its high court application by the African Labour and Human Rights Centre’s director August Maletzky and the Workers Revolutionary Party.
But on Wednesday the high court rejected the claims that the use of the e-voting machines was unconstitutional and a breach of the Electoral Act.
The Act stipulates that use of the machines in polling should be “subject to the simultaneous utilisation of a verifiable paper trail for every vote cast by a voter and any vote cast is verified by account of the paper trail”.
It continues: “In the event that the results of the voting machines and the results of the paper trail do not tally, the paper trail results are accepted as the election outcome for the polling station or voting thread concerned.”
Concern over machine’s lack of transparency
The RDP, Namibia’s second-largest parliamentary party, had demanded that the Electoral Commission of Namibia reschedule “transparent elections” for the end of February next year.
It also wanted the annulment of municipal elections and four by-elections held earlier this year, in which voters used electronic machines to cast their ballots. In addition, the party demanded that the electoral body should ensure that in future elections the machines should generate a paper trail for every vote cast.
AmaBhungane was unable to source the high court’s judgment. But Hamunyera Hambyuka, spokesperson for Namibia’s ruling party Swapo, said the application was dismissed, in part, because it had only been lodged a few days before the elections when there had been an opportunity to do so earlier.
Voters indicate their choice of party on the electronic machines by pressing a button.
The 3000 machines were customised for Namibians’ needs and are intended to speed up polling, reduce queuing and minimise human error in the counting process.
Manufactured in India at the cost of N$61-million, they differ from the ones recently used in the Indian general election, which generate an audit trail when a vote is cast.
The Indian courts ruled against the sole use of the machines last year in the wake of voting discrepancies. India’s system, which provides for a paper trail, is also said to be tamper-proof, the applicants argued.
Namibia’s electoral commission planned to make use of the machines in the previous election in 2009. But because no voter education was conducted before the poll, ballot papers were used instead.
Fear of the unknown
The applicants in this week’s court case also raised concerns about whether the machines can be manipulated.
The applicants claimed they could not trust the technology because of the risk of pre-programming to favour the ruling party, Swapo.
No discrepancies were reported in the Namibian by-elections and municipal elections earlier this year. However, the machines did not reduce queuing, as voters were not familiar with how to use them.
Sacky Shanghala, chairperson of the Law Reform and Development Commission, which falls under the justice ministry, said earlier this year that the machines cannot be trusted and warned that they could destabilise the country if they crash.
Former electoral commission director Gerhard Tötemeyer also advised sticking with ballot papers for the current elections, saying people are not sufficiently educated in the use of the machines.
Electoral commission spokesperson Viktoria Hango told amaBhungane that the Indian company that supplied the machines, Bharat Electronic Engineering, had checked all the devices in the presence of all political parties.
Hango said the system could not be manipulated by anyone, including the manufacturer. Voter education on how to use the machines started in late July this year.
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