Thursday, October 22, 2020

Tender row blights e-voting

Government has already started the process of procuring electronic voting machines even before parliament has passed an amendment to Electoral Act to allow for electronic voting.

Details emerged this week suggesting that two companies that wanted to supply the electronic voting machines, Smartmatic and Itanettix snubbed an invitation by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) after learning that an Indian state run company Bharat Electronic was tipped to win the contract to supply the machines through a single source tender process.

This was after Botswana was approached by India to visit the country on a benchmarking exercise. IEC Secretary Gabriel Seeletso confirmed to journalists and stakeholders at a workshop this week that the two companies did not honor their invitation to come to Botswana and make presentations about their electronic voting machines as was expected.

While the two companies had not responded to Sunday Standard queries by late Friday, IEC insiders claimed that in principle the tender has already been awarded to the Indian company; although Parliament is still debating the Electoral (Amendment) Bill of 2016. 

The two companies felt that they were only invited to make up the numbers because a decision had already been taken to award the tender to the Indian company.

The decision by the two companies to snub IEC was also informed by Botswana’s decision to benchmark against Namibia’s Electronic Voting system. Botswana intends to adopt the Namibian model. Namibia used Bharat Electronic Limited to procure the machines.

It has also emerged that Cabinet had already taken a decision to introduce the electronic voting system in the country even before the Electoral (Amendment) Bill of 2016 was tabled in Parliament.

Seeletso told journalists and stakeholders that the Indian High Commission in Gaborone invited Botswana to India to learn about the electronic voting process in that country.

“The Minister got information from the Indian High Commission to witness voting in India. He came back impressed that this would be a good solution to concerns raised,” said Seeletso.

He added that the “Minister was inspired to cause an Amendment to be made to the Electoral Act.” Presenting the bill as a matter of urgency in Parliament recently, Molale said sufficient time was required to conduct extensive voter education with a view to enhancing voter participation in the next general elections.

Seeletso said that Botswana was in favor of the Namibian model because it would address the concerns raised by voters such as long queues and delays in releasing the results. He said MPs Ndaba Gaolathe, Dithapelo Keorapetse and Ngaka Ngaka accompanied Molale to Namibia. Seeletso also revealed that Molale invited Namibia’s Attorney General to make a presentation before Botswana’s Cabinet.

Seeletso said if Parliament approves the Electoral (Amendment) Bill of 2016, the electronic voting device is expected to be user friendly not require time to time upgrades or maintenance and would minimize current costs, among other things.  

“The machine must at least have some form of option for power that will see it through the voting process and it must not be prone to hacking,” he said adding that “We have invited you because as a country we are desirous to use it in our voting.”

At the workshop, Botswana Congress Party’s Director of Elections Steven Makhura expressed concern that what makes them uneasy as politicians was that they have not been consulted. “We had hoped that the minister would engage parties before presenting the Bill in Parliament,” he said. He added that “we believe that as parties we should have an input. IEC should ensure that interests of parties are safeguarded. We expect the IEC not to be doing what the Government is doing.”

Makhura alleged that only ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) councilors accompanied Molale to India during the benchmarking exercise.  “What messages are you sending to us as politicians?” he asked. Makhura also expressed concern that it seemed IEC had already taken a decision to award the tender to the Indian company through a single source tender and not through an open public tender.

Seeletso said the tender could be awarded to the Indian Company or another company from totally a different country.

“We will identify who will supply the machines as per the IEC specifications; it could be through a public tender or we could single source,” he said.

Seeletso said IEC was not in any way attempting to preempt the Bill before Parliament.

“We are in anticipation of the amendment. As for whether the Minister did not invite opposition councilors is not for us to answer that,” he said.

Subject to approval of the Bill by Parliament, Seeletso said, the Commission will have to undertake the following; develop an implementation plan that will include consultation with stakeholders.

“The IEC is alive to the fact that any form or reform comes with resistance. Hence the first port of call should be internal consultation. We will have to come up with plans to train people and take the messages to the voters,” he said.

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