EVM controversy deepens

SHARE   |   Monday, 22 May 2017   |   By Ditiro Motlhabane
[L-R] Botsalo Ntuane, Nelson Ramaotwana and Dithapelo Keorapetse [L-R] Botsalo Ntuane, Nelson Ramaotwana and Dithapelo Keorapetse

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is going full steam with the procurement of electronic voting machines for 2019 general elections with the approval of PPADB, regardless of unresolved concerns raised by numerous stakeholders and the general public, officials confirmed on Thursday. What was scheduled to be a hacking exercise turned a damp squib when an entourage of IEC officials led by Secretary Keireng Zuze and EVM Consultant Gabriel Seeletso, accompanied by a team of unidentified Indian men – allegedly from the manufacturer of EVMs Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) – reneged on the promise. A week earlier Acting Secretary of the IEC, Bontle Marumoloa, invited "all those with technical capability to hack the EVM to come forward and those with the know how to disrupt, hack and compromise the security performance of the machines to do so" at the Thursday demonstration on how the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) works. That was not to be. First Seeletso shocked the audience by refusing to identify the 'technical experts' presenting the EVM before rejecting requests to examine components of the machine or its source code with a view to hack it. Notwithstanding the hacking invitation, Seeletso somersaulted at the eleven hour claiming that the machines were not available for scrutiny because Bharat as the copyright owner of the software/programme and hardware are not in agreement. He said, to growls from a disappointed audience, that such exercise could be an infringement on Bharat's commercial property – the EVM. Totally dominating proceedings, despite the presence of his superior, Seeletso even fielded questions directed at the manufacturer on behalf of Bharat. When Bharat was asked for the price of a single unit of an EVM combo, Seeletso usurped the responsibility for them and said such has not been determined because IEC is yet to finalise the specifications for the machine they are going to use. This is despite the fact that Bharat has produced similar machines for other clients, including Namibia and India. When pressed further Seeletso revealed that the IEC has projected to acquire 7 000 units of the EVMs, plus VVPATs combo at an estimated cost of P90 million, excluding other related costs. 

No hackathon

Media reports in India on Monday quoted Chairman & Managing Director of BEL M. V. Gowtama distancing the Bengaluru-based arms manufacturing company from any planned hacking session (hackathon) in Botswana. "BEL categorically states that it has not sold any EVMs or VVPATs to Botswana Election Commission. Botswana Election Commission has invited team of BEL to show only the functionality of EVMs and VVPATs designed to meet the specific requirements of Botswana Government. These EVMs and VVPATs are different from the ones which are used by Election Commission of India. No Hackathon event involving any EVM of BEL has been planned or scheduled by it. The reports are completely baseless and false," said Gowtama. Contrary to this, Seeletso and Zuze said the IEC has not finalised specifications for the machine they want notwithstanding that the latter confirmed in the same meeting that Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Board (PPADB) has approved their request to appoint Bharat as the supplier of the machines. Last year two other companies from Australia and the United Kingdom who showed interest in bidding for the supply of EVMs pulled out of another demonstration for stakeholders, expressing discomfort about the close relationship between IEC and Bharat. Only the Indian company showed up. 

Controversy swirls 

The controversy over EVMs took another turn on Thursday night when the Secretary General of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) Botsalo Ntuane claimed that his party did not come up with the introduction of the machines. He said the IEC brought the idea to them and recommended the amendment of the Electoral Act following pressure from opposition parties, who in the past called for electoral reforms that include the use of EVMs. Seeletso, on the other hand, has repeatedly announced that the IEC does not make laws but are only implementing what has been passed by Parliament. Amendment to the Electoral Act, which paved the way for the use of EVMs, was passed by the majority BDP MPs last year in a Parliament session that extended to the wee hours of the morning. Ntuane, who likened the EVM issue to a lightning rod, redeemed himself by declaring that his party has not closed discussions on the matter. "We are willing to listen to suggestions from the IEC on the way forward. The EVM issue will be an agenda item at the upcoming national council and congress. We are going to allow our people to ventilate the issue to make a final decision," he said. As Ntuane faltered in an attempt to absolve the BDP from the EVM controversy, Nelson Ramaotwana and Dithapelo Keorapetse of the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) and Botswana Congress Party (BCP) respectively went for the jugular. Their multipronged assault on the EVMs converged into one statement - the opposition will boycott 2019 elections with EVM and take to the streets. 

Drawing a comparison with other countries, Keorapetse said India has about 814 million voters while South Africa has over 24 million but both still use the ballot paper. He said Botswana does not need the expensive EVMs as she only has about 670 000 voters. To buttress the point, Ramaotwana said just two weeks ago 30 million voters went to the polls in France using a ballot paper. "It took only four hours to count the total votes cast," he said. Rather than adopting a costly exercise of EVMs (with additional costs from maintenance, service and safe keeping) Ramaotwana suggests that the IEC should adopt simple reforms like counting votes in polling stations where they are cast and forwarding the results to a central point for tallying as opposed to bringing all votes cast to one place for counting. The proposal, he said, has long been made by UN, SADC, local opposition parties. "Current delays are caused by the system not the equipment. In a by-election in Tlokweng last week there were only 20 votes at one polling station. It cannot take hours to count those. In constituencies like Goodhope/Mabule it takes no less than three hours to travel from one polling station to the counting centre. This is the cause of delays," he said.  

BDP to rig elections?

Keorapetse argued that the BDP’s legitimacy has eroded to 46.5% and therefore they want to introduce EVMs to rig 2019 general elections to remain in power. He said the BDP majority in Parliament passed the amendment to the electoral act in August 2016, which does not include the voter verifiable paper audit trail. Even more importantly the opposition politicians said the Constitution dictates that a referendum should be conducted when changes are made to the electoral process, which was not done. Ramaotwana cited a Court of Appeal decision in the Unity Dow case, which he said clearly explains that a referendum be carried out before modifying the process of elections. He said a referendum is used to entrench a particular form of democracy in the determination of who ascends to power. Keorapetse dismissed arguments that EVMs cannot be hacked, citing numerous authorities including Journal of Electronics Engineering, Research by Professors and a decision of the Supreme Court of India, who concluded that the machines can be manipulated or tampered with. He said the haste with which IEC is pushing EVM introduction raises eyebrows because a lawsuit filed by the BCP against it is yet to be heard, and IEC has filed notice to abide by the decision of the court and promised not to proceed with the procurement. He cited numerous dictionaries to support his argument that the amended Act contravenes the Constitution over the definition of a ballot. As defined in numerous dictionaries and envisioned by the crafters of the Constitution, a ballot is a paper and not a machine, he said. In addition, he said, the amended Electoral Act does not make provision for a VVPAT, to which Ramaotwana warned that inserting a paper trail creates an illusion that it removes rigging but it does not. "We will not go to the polls that will be rigged through some devices. More than boycotting elections we will block any election with EVM. We will not stand aside and watch as the BDP destroys our democracy. Why is the BDP in a hurry to bring EVMs? Rulers must act in the interest of the ruled. The ruled must be consulted before decisions are made, rather than rulers assuming a paternalistic approach of prescribing what their children need," said Keorapetse.