Kenyan elections have been underway for slightly more than 24 hours, and the much-touted voting technology, or lack thereof, has been at the center of attention. Within hours of the opening of the polling centers, reports from around the country announced the failure of the biometric voter identification system. This technology, which recorded voters’ fingerprints and other biographical data during the voter registration process, was meant to then identify registered voters on Election Day, using Kenyans’ individual biometric identity information. Due to a number of problems, including power outages, low battery life of the devices and polling officials’ difficulty accessing the central system, however, many stations had to resort to using the manual register.
The use of the manual register made incredibly long lines even slower to move. Voters had formed queues before dawn in some areas, and some polls, which opened late, saw voters continuing to wait under an increasingly fierce sun. Even where the voting centers opened on time, progress was slow. It was, after all, the first election since the promulgation of the new constitution, which created a devolved system and requires Kenyans to vote for six different public officers. Many polling centers also struggled to organize the thousands of voters in line into shorter “streams,” which grouped voters into alphabetically ordered groups. Lines were so cumbersome that many waited for hours, sometimes on the main roads outside of the polling centers, only to find that their streams inside were relatively empty. If they had been able to enter the correct streams from the beginning of the process, instead of having had to first wait in the longer, main line just to enter the station, they might have moved more efficiently. Still, Kenyans showed true commitment, enduring the wait with patience. One woman even delivered her baby at a polling station, staying to cast her ballot before going on to the hospital.
The biometric voter identification problem was compounded on Monday night, when the electronic results transmission system (ERT) experienced what IEBC CEO James Oswago described as a “glitch.” Oswago explained that at one point in the evening, the server experienced an error related to insufficient space to accommodate incoming results. The error was corrected, and results again began streaming in.
The electronic results transmission system is, in fact, one of the most critical aspects of this election. In 2007, it was precisely the lack of transparency around results from critical constituencies that sparked widespread unrest. The new electronic system, which allows polling center agents to transmit results to the IEBC via mobile phones, is supposed to be fool-proof. Testing of the system in the days leading up to this election, however, revealed problems. In one test, the system failed in four out of five mock polling centers. Similar deficiencies were seen during the national simulation of the election.