Thursday, October 28, 2021

‘BDP MPs were not consulted on EVMs’

The vine from which the Gaborone Bonnington South MP, Ndaba Gaolathe, picks his grapes has made so startling a revelation that he has decided to share such revelation in a paper that he has just authored.

“The grapevine reveals that the EVM discussion caught the ruling party MPs unawares as it did all other MPs.  This is not a surprise as it is consistent with the governance style of the current regime:  only the president and his close circle of loyalists are privy to and keep a tight grip over some of the most important plans that affect the country’s economy and governance,” Gaolathe writes in “Introduction of the Electronic Voting Machines in Botswana.”

The paper has been submitted to diplomatic missions with the expectation that it will be relayed to the home countries of those missions. UDC has grave misgivings about the introduction of EVMs and wants foreign governments to intercede.

On the other hand, the most senior Botswana Democratic Party backbencher, Liakat Kablay, denies the allegations Gaolathe makes, saying that there was an extensive consultation process with his party’s MPs.

“MPs were kept abreast of developments on those machines every step of the way. Some of them were part of a delegation that went to India and visited the factory where the machines are manufactured. Upon their return, the BDP’s parliamentary caucus discussed the issue at length and resolved to support legislation introducing the machines. BDP MPs were also part of an all-party general assembly meeting at which officials of the Indian manufacturer conducted a demonstration of how those machines work. All of us ÔÇô including opposition MPs, agreed that the machines would be a desirable acquisition and thus resolved that they should be introduced in our electoral system,” says Kablay who holds the position of Government Whip.

The explanation that he provides for the opposition’s about-face is that it mysteriously happened only after apparently getting advice from some unknown sources.

Gaolathe’s account doesn’t comport with Kablay. The MP, who is also UDC’s Secretary General and president of the Botswana Movement for Democracy, confirms the BDP’s man account only to a point.

“At what seemed like the initial stages of when the idea of EVMs were first mooted at ministerial level, the government dispatched a delegation that included opposition Members of Parliament on an observer mission to Namibia’s national local elections.  The same delegation, of which I was a part, also travelled to India on another mission to familiarise itself with the EVM experience and technology, including site visits at Bharat Technologies, the state manufacturer of EVMs,” writes Gaolathe, adding that the understanding then was that all stakeholders would return home to solicit technical input from experts and other stakeholders before any collective decision was taken. 

“There appeared to be a mutual understanding that a prospective decision of this magnitude, with potential ramifications on the foundations of our democracy and our people’s faith and trust in it, required the support and goodwill of organisations across the political divide. More specifically, the Minister of Presidential Affairs, committed to advancing a draft amendment bill before any tabling in Parliament, for our consideration.  Instead, the Minister, in an act of parliamentary ambush, launched the bill for debate as a matter of urgency.  The debate lasted the entire night, until second crow of the following morning.  The ruling BDP’s Members of Parliament voted in favour of the introduction of EVMs, while all opposition MPs rejected the new piece of legislation.”

According to the MP, at no point were observer groups – that included opposition MPs, asked to consider or assess alternative EVM models or EVM manufacturers: “There was no transparent process to compare EVMs and score them on aspects of value for money or efficiency or alignment with Botswana’s constitutional or democratic obligations and expectations.” 

Whatever happened, the current situation is such that the UDC and the Botswana Congress Party are waging an all-out campaign to, not reject EVMs but introduce certain security measures that would preserve the integrity of the electoral system. To be precise, both are insisting on a voter verifiable paper trail (VVPT), which is basically a record of how votes were cast. Without such system, it would be very easy to manipulate the electoral outcome, something that the opposition fears the BDP plans to do in 2019.

In arguing his case, Gaolathe introduces one quite interesting detail that will give some pause about the desirability of EVMs as democracy-enhancing technology. Against an astounding amount of evidence to the contrary, both Botswana government and Bharat Technologies officials insist that the machines cannot be hacked. The MP counters such assertion by pointing to research evidence from the University of Michigan in the United States which not only hacked into the Indian EVMs but also wrote a paper dispelling the idea of the infallibility of those machines. 

“A pressure group in the Netherlands has demonstrated that it is possible to hack the machines within five minutes, from a distance of 40 meters, without being detected by those supervising the operations of the machines. Also, new heat technology/infrared exists with which those with the know-how can identify how votes are being casted in real time, in breach of ballot secrecy obligations,” Gaolathe says.

The interesting detail is that some western nations which are great technological innovators have stiff-armed the technology that Botswana wants to embrace.

“EVMs are banned in some countries, including Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands.  In India, the Supreme Court has ruled that the use of the EVMs is unconstitutional if it is implemented without a Voter Verifiable Paper Trail (VVPT).  In Germany, the Supreme Court ruled that the security safeguards of all EVMs are inadequate and the violation on the simple democratic principles of transparency and verifiability of the electoral process are far too grave a set of sacrifices to justify any form of efficiency gains,” Gaolathe says.

The part of the judgement that he quotes states: “The Federal Voting Machines Ordinance does not ensure that only such voting machines are used which make it possible to reliably examine, when the vote is cast, whether the vote has been recorded in an unadulterated manner. The ordinance also does not place any concrete requirements as regards its content and procedure on a reliable later examination of the ascertainment of the result…It was not sufficient that the result of the calculation process carried out in the voting machine could be taken note of by means of a summarising printout or an electronic display.”

The MP says that the findings of the German Court reflect the informed conclusions of “all fair-minded observers, experts and ordinary people.  It reflects the observations of the various actors and a significant number of citizens in Botswana.”

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