SMS Critical in Election Monitoring in Ghana

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Dec 07, 2008

The CODEO Election Observation Center for the all-important 2008 Ghanaian election is a busy place.  Data operators are sitting on rows of computers monitoring incoming SMS messages from 1,000 polling stations around the country.  Mobile phones are ringing constantly with calls from the observers in the field.   Maps of the 230 constituencies in Ghana adorn the walls of the modern building at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center in Accra.  

The Observation Center, affectionately called the "OC"  by CODEO staffers, is the technology hub of the massive amounts of qualitative and vote count data that is pouring in from the more than 4,000 election observers deployed by CODEO, the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers.  This makes it by far the largest deployment of election observers in this year's election.  Mobile technology, and text messaging in particular, is playing a critical piece in relaying both qualitative data on how the election is being conducted, and quantitative data that will verify the official results issued by the Ghanaian Election Commission.

Ghana's election is closely watched by all of Africa after the violence and fraud experienced most recently in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria.  Ghana is voting for a for a new president and 230 lawmakers in a closely-contested and boisterous election marked by raucous election rallies and fiery rhetoric.  

Current Ghana President John Kufuor of the New Patriotic Party is steppingg down in January after two terms. The NPPs chosen successor is British-trained lawyer Nana Akufo-Addo.  Seven other candidates are standing for the presidency but Akufo-Addo and main opposition candidate John Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) are considered the frontrunners with a run-off election expected.  Voters are also electing the National Assembly, currently dominated by Kufuour's NPP with 128 of the 230 seats.

At polling stations in Accra this morning, there were long lines of voters. All that we saw were patiently waiting in the hot sun at temporary polls, watched over by workers from the Election Commission, and a sprinkling of foreign observers.  But by far the strongest, most systematic and representative observers are from the domestic coalition with their white shirts emblazoned with the words "CODEO Election Observer - Election 2008" on the back.  

Each of the 4,000 trained observers-mostly members of the 34-organization strong CODEO coalition--are deployed all over Ghana are using their phones to report on incidences at the polls and how well the polls are conducted, using a coded checklist.  As we have reported before, systematic SMS reporting by trained local citizen observers about how well an election is conducted can prevent rumors, and is an independent and reliable indicator about the quality of the election process.  

1,000 of the observers are also conducting 'Parallel Vote Tabulation', a methodology that independently verifies the accuracy of the official vote count at the end of election day.  As the name suggests, the observers are watching as the votes are counted at the randomly selected polling stations where they are deployed before ballots are collated and transported. This allows observers to get as close as possible to an actual count.  The vote tabulation for each candidate and party are then immediately transmitted by the observer via SMS to the CODEO Observation Center to be tabulated and compared with the official results.  

Since these 1,000 polling stations constitute a representative sample of the more than 22,000 polling stations in Ghana, a well-conducted parallel vote tabulation provides a very reliable indicator as to whether the total official vote count announcements are accurate.

CODEO is assisted by NDI, an American NGO, that has provided technical assistance.  In a simulation exercise last week that tested the text-in process, the SMS gateway failed mid-day because of failing back-up electric generators.  But so far, a few hours into election day, with multiple back-up supports in place, the SMS process is running smoothly and the 1,000 Rapid Response Observers have largely reported in with the systems up and running.  An observer from the EU noted that the system CODEO and NDI developed was by far 'the most impressive' election observation system using mobile tech that he had seen.  And the news so far from the Rapid Response Observers is encouraging: There have been few incidence and voting is going largely smoothly.   As many people will tell you on the street: "We are voting for Mama Ghana."

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