The productive failures of biometric voting in Africa

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Voters in Chad/Credit: Marielle Debos
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Biometric voting is booming in Africa. Since the mid-2000s, election management bodies have increasingly turned to biometric voter registration. 28 countries on the continent now use biometrics to generate voter rolls. A select few countries –  Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda – also use biometric voter authentication on polling day. While most countries use fingerprinting, technologies are becoming increasingly sophisticated: in 2017, Somaliland was the first country to use iris recognition for an election.

While biometrics has raised expectations among political opponents, they do not automatically prevent rigging. Biometric voter registration strengthens the reliability of the voter roll by preventing multiple registration, but it does not affect many other fraudulent strategies.

Election technologies can even be counterproductive by creating black boxes that are inaccessible to citizens, reinforcing election commissions’ dependency on support from donors and foreign experts. In a nutshell, biometric voting is not only a waste of money: it has troubling implications for democracy.

The political utility of a fallible technology

The failures of biometric voting are the norm rather than the exception. Why is the technology so often used where there is little hope that it will significantly limit fraud? My research shows that fallible technologies have political utility.

My research shows that fallible technologies have political utility.

Biometric voting can be successful in terms of symbolic and image effects, showing (for those who believe in it) the ruling party’s commitment to free and fair elections. In this sense, biometric voting “works” even when it does not work. Regardless of their failures or cost, biometric technologies are used to suggest that “something is happening”, that the state and the private sector are working together for the public good – whether this is defined as security, border management, or democracy.

As I have shown in a recent article, Chad is a perfect example of the construction of biometrics as the go-to solution for the holding of elections, even where the political context is not conducive to democratic elections. Biometric voter registration was introduced during the 2007 negotiations between the government, the ruling party and its allies, and the main opposition coalition.

The negotiations were encouraged and facilitated by the European Union. When faced with intractable political issues, international interventions often turn to technological “solutions.” Donors and electoral commissions may also have self-interested reasons to promote new technology, which generates large and lucrative contracts that create rent-seeking opportunities for officials and potential business for American and European firms.

In the case of Chad, biometrics was not only promoted as an efficient means to enrol voters; the technology was also promoted to the political opposition as an actual game changer.

After years of delay, the biometric voter registration process was finally implemented for the 2016 presidential election. Unsurprisingly, President Idriss Déby was reelected in the first round. The technology improved the electoral process only marginally.

The voter roll was more accurate and reliable, but fraudulent and violent practices did not wither away.

Idriss Déby and his allies played the biometrics card successfully. By introducing this technology, they addressed several audiences: opponents who were invited to stop the boycott, voters who were expected to register and vote, and Chad’s international partners in the “war on terror” (mainly France and the United States) who preferred their key ally in the Sahel to be a democratic regime – even if only for the façade.

Biometrics was about building a consensus over the benefits of an election held in a militarized political climate that the government was struggling to legitimate. It was about acceptance of the results and endorsement of the election, rather than the promotion of democracy.

It was about acceptance of the results and endorsement of the election, rather than the promotion of democracy.

The quest for the perfect technology

Despite these failures, biometric voting has not been called into question. On the contrary, opponents urged for the implementation of a “more comprehensive” biometric solution with voter verification at the polling station, which was rejected by the government. The quest for the perfect technology is a self-sustaining logic: failures lead not to the withdrawal of a technology but to the implementation of a new one.

Since the voter roll had not been updated nor maintained – something that happens more often than you would think, requiring further investments and often the procurement of new equipment – a new registration campaign was launched for the April 2021 presidential election. This time, the contract was awarded to a Dutch Company, HSB. A large numbers of voter cards were however not distributed in time and voters were allowed to vote with the previous voter cards or the receipt given when they were enrolled.

The election was also problematic because it took place after a crackdown on opponents, while several candidates withdrew from the race and called for a boycott.

Ironically, although Idriss Déby was re-elected for a sixth time, he died shortly after on 21 April 2021 from injuries inflicted on the battlefield – we still do not know whether he was killed by rebels or by members of his own camp. As a military junta led by Idriss Déby’s own son seized power, election technologies are no longer high on the agenda.

They could however be back in the public debate if elections promised by the new military junta come to pass.

In Chad as in so many other countries, it is precisely because the technology is fallible that it is able to succeed politically. Even as it remains compatible with certain longstanding anti-democratic practices, biometric voting manages to convey the image of a modern state ready to embark on the democratization journey.

Biometrics, then, can also help sustain an undemocratic political order.

Marielle Debos is Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Paris Nanterre – Institute for Social Sciences of Politics. She is the author of Living by the Gun in Chad: Combatants, Impunity, and State Formation (Zed Books 2016).

This article is based on “Biometrics and the disciplining of democracy: technology, electoral politics, and liberal interventionism in Chad”, Democratization, 2021.

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