Tech in Election Monitoring: Fighting Fraud and Corruption, one Picture at a Time

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Oct 25, 2011

Following this weekend's Tunisian elections, the world is looking to the Middle East to see how new democracies are born. But in many countries with emerging democracies, fraud and corruption can taint the credibility of elections, and the public's trust in the fairness and validity of election results. We have long argued that technology - mobile technology in particular - can play a key role in helping to ensure fair and accurate voting processes and results. However, data has been missing to make that point more definitively. 

In areas where much of the voting process isn't digitized, using technology can help mitigate vote tampering and incorrect results. Additionally, SMS reports of vote tabulation from polling stations by trained election observers can be an effective way of limiting voting fraud and corruption, and has been used in different elections around the world. In Lebanon's 2009 elections, roughly 2500 volunteer citizen observers reported from a statistically significant number of polling station incidence reports throughout election day. In Nigeria, 2011 Project Swift Count deployed 8000 trained election observers across the country to report on the elections, including election results from polling stations directly, using SMS.

MobileActive recently wrote about our work with FORS Elections to set up an election monitoring system in Benin that used SMS and online mapping to report on the conduct of the election. These large-scale projects show SMS can be used to collect reports quickly across wide distances, but SMS isn't the only way to use technology to prevent election fraud.

With the cost of higher-end feature phones and smartphones dropping, they are growing more prevalent around the world (with global smartphone sales estimated to hit 420 million in 2011, 28% of all handsets sales for the year).  With lower costs and higher prevalence, there are opportunities for more in-depth mobile election monitoring than merely via SMS reports of incidences and results.  

University of California-San Diego doctoral students Michael Callen and James Long took digital photographs of election results at 471 polling stations across Afghanistan in order to compare and contrast the day-of results with official reports to see if taking photographs had an effect on the level of voting fraud. Specifically, the researchers write:

"To obtain immediate post-election counts, pictures are taken at the polling center of Declaration of Results Forms (DR forms) - Photo Quick Count"

The researchers found that by taking the photographs, "Monitoring reduces the incidence of theft or damaging of election materials at polling centers from 18.9 to 11.8 percent (a 7.1 percent decrease) and has a considerable negative effect on the number of votes cast for powerful candidates."

Although the Afghanistan pilot did not use mobile technology, the team later partnered with Qualcomm to implement the "Photo Quick Count" technology as a smartphone application. With the greater availability and affordability of feature phones and smartphones, in the coming years there could be, in addition to SMS-based reports, systematic election monitoring that takes advantage of the richer features of higher-end phones – such as GPS tracking, camera and video capabilities, social media connections through the mobile web and apps, and real-time updates. We also envision crowdsourced reports from citizens (often mapped now on platforms like Ushahidi) to take greater advantage of pictorial depictions of events at polling stations. 

In Tunisia, there was high voter turnout and the voting process was peaceful. As more free elections will follow Tunisia's example, technology can play a part in creating a system of checks and balances to ensure fair vote collecting and counting.

Image via European Parliament Flickr feed

Tech in Election Monitoring: Fighting Fraud and Corruption, one Picture at a Time data sheet 2006 Views
Countries: Afghanistan

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