Authorities in Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday unveiled an electronic voting machine that will be used in key elections this year, despite accusations that the technology could skew the outcome.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) showed off the machine to reporters, saying it was essential for conducting presidential, legislative and local elections due on December 23.
“It’s not a cheating machine (but) a machine to simplify… (and) reduce costs,” said Jean-Pierre Kalamba, CENI’s rapporteur.
On February 13, CENI chief Corneille Nangaa declared, “Without voting machines, there won’t be elections on December 23 2018.”
Analysts see the elections as crucial for the future of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a sprawling country entrenched in poverty, corruption and conflict.
President Joseph Kabila, in power since 2001, refused to step down in 2016 after his two terms in office, the maximum permitted under the constitution, expired.
The influential Roman Catholic church brokered an accord under which Kabila could remain in power provided new elections were held in 2017.
But the deal that fell through after CENI said it needed more time to prepare, including the compilation of a voters’ register.
A new date was set for December this year, but Kabila – whose election in 2011 was stained by allegations of massive fraud – has yet to state clearly whether he will step aside.
Tension, marked by protests that have met with a bloody crackdown, is mounting.
The opposition has rejected use of the voting machines, and the church has called on CENI to “lift suspicions” about them by “accepting certification by national and international experts.”
The United States, meanwhile, has said voting machines could undermine the credibility of the polls.
“These elections must be held by paper ballot so there is no question by the Congolese people about the result,” Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said on February 13.
“The US has no appetite to support an electronic voting system,” she said, adding that e-ballots had never been tested in the country.
The machine, as presented to the press, outwardly resembles a simple tactile screen on which the voter touches a photo of the candidate. A mistake can be rectified.
After making the choice, the elector receives a printout of it on a ballot paper, which he or she then puts into a ballot box, CENI said.
When polling closes, the machine provides the result, which can then be verified by a manual count of the votes.
“Nikki said it was an electronic vote” but the count remains “manual,” Kalamba told reporters.
The machine, made in South Korea, operates in French, which is an official language in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but not in the country’s four other national languages.
At least 60 000 machines will have to be deployed across a country four times the size of France, ahead of voting day.
Before then, “600 000 to 650 000 electoral agents” will be needed to help with preparations, including the drive to update the electoral roll.