The European Union (EU), one of the major financiers of Malawi’s elections, has cast doubt on the successful implementation of a new hi-tech voter registration system which the Electoral Commission (EC) plans to introduce.
EU Ambassador Alexander Baum said in an exclusive interview last week that factors such as duration to the polling day, financing and experience from countries that already introduced the biometric system, weigh down the possibilities of a fresh voter registration exercise.
He said the EC has two options for the voter registration in preparation for the 2014 tripartite elections: To either update the already existing roll using the optical mark recognition (OMR) system or buy the biometric system to do a fresh exercise.
Said Baum: “Taking into consideration the pros and cons of both solutions, the costs of it and also the time frame and need for a transparent and credible procurement process, the issue of the fresh voter registration system should obviously be assessed carefully.
“During the December  Round-table, the EU and other development partners expressed concerns about the time limitations related to introduction of a new voter registration system, with only 16 months remaining before the 2014 tripartite elections.
“It would certainly be challenging to ensure proper procurement procedures, testing of the new system and training [among others]. Experiences from other countries like, for example, Ghana, show that introduction of a biometric voter registration system is a complex process that should be undertaken over an extended period of time.”
There was no immediate comment from EC on the EU’s observations.
On the EC’s visits to some countries to appreciate the biometric systems, the EU envoy said his office is aware of the exercise, but was quick to point out that donors have no specific information regarding the trips and the source of funding.
However, The Nation investigations revealed recently that some commissioners and staff at the EC have visited Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia and Sierra Leone using funds provided by prospective bidders of the biometric system.
The ambassador said they expect discussions on an operational plan and budget to involve the commission, Treasury and the development partners which will support the 2014 tripartite elections. He said only then will it be clear on the budgetary restrictions and options, including the voter registration system to be used.
Last week, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) communications assistant Steven Kamponda said development partners expressed concern about the round table meeting about the time frame before the upcoming elections, the potential costs and sustainability of a biometric system, and the risks of introducing a new system at this stage.
Chief elections officer Willie Kalonga then argued procurement of the new system has not started, but the commission is still studying registration systems that have proved to be successful in other election management bodies in the region and beyond.
Said Kalonga: “The registration system is not new. We are only asking voters to register in their wards. Malawians have always registered in times of elections. Sixteen months is adequate to carry out a credible process.”
Briefly, a biometric voter registration involves the use of biometric technologies using computers, fingerprint scanners and digital cameras to capture the bio-data of applicants and in this case, the eligible voters. The details include fingerprints.