Monday, September 3, 2012

Use of SMS Technology in Ghana's Provisional Voter Register Exhibition

On September 3, 2012 the Electoral Commission (EC) of Ghana launched another technological tool in its effort to expand access to the Provisional Voters Register (PVR). The new technological platform employs the use of SMS technology to allow voters to text in to check that their names and other details have been properly captured on the newly composed Voters Register. 

This launch comes at the back of the successful completion of the country’s maiden Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) exercise that was held from 24th March to 5th May of this year in which the EC compiled a brand new voter register. Concurrently, the EC is holding a 10-days exhibition of the PVR (September 1st and 10th, 2012) at all polling stations across the country. This exercise similarly enables prospective voters to confirm their personal details and to provide any additional information where necessary.  The exhibition of the PVR exercise is also to help expunge names of unqualified or deceased persons from the voters’ list.

Beginning from today, until the conduct of election on December 7, 2012, voters from across the country on all mobile phone networks can text in their voter’s identification number to a mobile short code (1413) and in return receive an SMS message containing their Voter Identification number, name, polling station, age, sex, constituency, district and region. However, voters will not have their electronic photos as captured by the EC displayed. Voters, who have problems with the information as captured in the voter register and received via SMS, are then advised to visit their polling station to seek assistance of EC officials to correct any errors. According to the Electoral Commission, the system has all the necessary security features to guard against potential hacking and thus should help allay fears of citizens and political parties of possible dangers that may be associated with this expansion of access to the PVR.

On the face of it, the EC’s SMS platform designed to facilitate information flow between the EC and the general public, is a laudable initiative. However, arguably, this exercise is flawed, in numerous ways.  

Firstly, although the donor world (and indeed it is the UNDP that funded this project) have eagerly embraced mobile technology as the latest tool to “empower citizens”, it should be recognized that there are limits to how successfully citizen-based SMS projects can be executed. The fifth round of the Afrobaromter (2012) indeed shows that only 36% of Ghanaians ever used SMS when communicating, and the vast majority instead relies on voice calls. This suggests that for all of its efforts and related costs, the EC may be targeting a relatively small voter population. Arguably, the money could have been better spent educating citizens on the importance of visiting polling stations, organizing community meetings for voters to check the register, supporting a free voice hotline to allow voters to verify their details, and allowing for a longer exhibition of the voters register.

Secondly, the project has been launched very late in the day, after two days of the ten-day voter exhibition at polling stations has already been completed. Furthermore, there has been no public education on this new service and a lack of advertising. As it stands, voters are likely to be confused as to how to verify their Voter ID detail, that is whether to use the mobile phone text messaging method or visit their polling centers. Although the EC has printed thousands of pamphlets to advertise the service it is difficult to see how these will reach the average rural voter in Ghana and once they do reach them the physical exhibition of the register is likely to be closed. In this case it is not clear how citizens are supposed to communicate with the EC if their registration details are missing or incorrect.

Thirdly, given the relatively low level of literacy among Ghanaian voting population it is unclear how they would be able to accurately check their information on the voter’s ID card and that sent to them via the SMS text message.  

Lastly, the cost of the SMS service provided by EC’s technology partner, Mobile Content.Com Ltd, is relatively expensive An SMS message to the short code provide the EC will cost a voter GHC 0.30, compared to the usual GHC 0.02-0.03 prices of SMS in Ghana. Furthermore, this price is not advertised on the pamphlet. In not displaying the cost many citizens may be unwilling to text the number worried that it will cost a lot. This may therefore reduce participation in the process and therefore defeat the intended purpose of this introduction.

Moving forward, the EC should endeavor to intensify its public education on the ongoing exhibition exercise and get voters to physically crosscheck their information at their polling stations. In this way, voters will be sure of which polling station they will be able to cast their ballot and mitigate the difficulties of locating ones polling stations on December 7.