Although Kenya has avoided 2007-style violence this time around, dozens of people, mainly supporters of Odinga, have been killed by security forces since August. And questions about the performance of the voting system in 2017 linger. While parts of the IEBC’s systems, in Msando’s absence, worked as planned, others failed in ways that called into question the integrity of the result, which gave Kenyatta a win with 54 percent of the vote. After Odinga filed a legal challenge to the election outcome, the Supreme Court answered by overturning it. On September 1, in a startling announcement, Chief Justice David Maraga declared Kenyatta’s victory “invalid, null, and void,” and ordered a new vote within 60 days.
An Odinga victory was not meant to be. The court’s decision, which marked the first time a presidential vote had been annulled in Africa, was hailed as a milestone of judicial independence. But it would only leave the country more divided. Despite hailing the Supreme Court ruling, Odinga boycotted the repeat vote held on October 26, claiming the IEBC could not hold a credible poll; Kenyatta breezed through with 98 percent of the vote and was inaugurated in November for a second term. Odinga, who insists he won the poll in August, remains defiant, calling himself the “people’s president” and urging his followers to boycott government-affiliated businesses.
The Effort to Protect the Vote
The dimly lit wood-paneled offices of the IEBC, where I met with staff on a December afternoon, are hardly evocative of an institution transformed by tech. Yet Kenya’s election-management body, like its counterparts around the world, has embraced the digital revolution. According to David Carroll, director of democracy at the Carter Center, who’s monitored more than 25 years of elections for the Atlanta-based nonprofit, a majority of countries now incorporate at least some digital elements into their voting processes. The technology varies widely. Electronic voting machines, designed to eliminate spoilage associated with paper ballots, such as Florida’s infamous “hanging chads,” were first introduced in the 1980s. India, the world’s largest democracy, now uses EVMs, as they’re often abbreviated, in all of its polling stations, nearly a million. Other countries, including a growing number in Africa, have incorporated elements of the system used in Kenya, where voting still takes place on paper ballots, but registration and result transmission are digitized. In November, the self-declared state of Somaliland held the world’s first election where voters were identified through iris scans. Over the last decade, more than a dozen countries have conducted online voting pilots and one, Estonia, currently offers online voting to all its citizens.
Kenya’s embrace of voting tech is a consequence in part of the violence and chaos that started in 2007. To prevent cheating in the future, Kriegler, the South African judge, recommended introducing the two innovations that would become the heart of the IEBC’s toolkit: a biometric register, partly to help ensure all voters are living, and an electronic transmission system, intended to reduce anxiety-producing delays in the tabulation process and improve the transparency of figures from the polling station level on up.