Election Monitoring with Mobiles - A Path to Greater Accountability

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Sep 24, 2008

CNN recently reported on mobiles in election  monitoring -- providing real-time data from the polling stations transmitted via mobiles. The article asserts:  "The humble mobile phone is driving a new revolution which some experts hope could bring fairer elections and democracy to some African states. During the 2006 local government elections in Senegal, Radio Sud used reporters and correspondents with cell phones to call in what they saw. Many African countries have struggled against rigged elections and authoritarian rule since gaining independence last century. However, African observers say the growth of simple communication technologies like cell phones are assisting many states to progress towards open and fair elections in increasingly democratic systems."

CNN argues that the use of mobile phones increases accountability in elections and allows  "independent media, especially radio, to provide accurate coverage of elections and make it more difficult for ruling parties to cheat and get away with it."

Surprisingly, CNN did not mention Sierra Leone where the largest number of grassroots election monitors were deployed to ensure that this country's critical election would proceed fairly and without violence.

We wrote here about monitoring election with mobiles:

"Phones have been deployed in six elections in countries around the world, with volunteers systematically using text messaging in election monitoring. Pioneered by an American NGO, the National Democratic Institute,, SMS monitoring is becoming a highly sophisticated rapid reporting tool used not just in a referendum election like in Montenegro, but in parliamentary elections with a plethora of candidates and parties and complex data reported via SMS. This was the case in Bahrain, a small country in the Middle East, where monitors reported individual election tallies in a series of five to fourty concurrent SMS messages, using a sophisticated cosding system, with near accuracy.

In the election in Sierra Leone, lead by the National Election Watch (NEW), a coalition of over 200 NGOs in the country, NEW had monitors at 500 of the 6171 polling stations. Monitors report on whether there are any irregularities via SMS back to headquarters. "

The use of cell phones in this instance was extraordinarily successful and largely ensured that the election proceeded peacefully, even as rumors of violence were rampant-  ironically also often disseminated via text message.

We think that CNN has got it right -- mobiles provide unprecedented opportunities for independent monitoring and increased accountability.   

We believe that,

"In the three years since the first large-scale SMS monitoring in Montenegro, there have been rapid improvements in mobile services as competition in the wireless industry has increased worldwide, and there is growing interest and understanding on the part of NGOs that systematic election monitoring is not as difficult as it first may seem.

And we think that this work can be taken much further than it has to date to effect greater accountability in other areas as well.  So, as election monitoring via SMS becomes standardized and NGOs gain experience, there is no reason for mobile phones and SMS not to play a greater role in other areas of civic participation.

For example, imagine citizen oversight of public works projects where people might report on whether a clinic is actually built as indicated in a local budget. Other applications may be monitoring and accountability of elected officials, and dissemination of voter registration information such as the address of where to register, or the nearest polling station. Several pilot projects in the United States showed promising results in increasing voter turnout by text message reminders. The future is bright for innovative ways in which cell phones are used by citizens to participate and engage in their countries as the mobile revolution unfolds."

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