Digital elections no magic remedy for Zimbabwe's blighted democracy

Gift Mwonzora
Digital Voting

Can digitalisation prevent election tampering in Zimbabwe? New technologies certainly have the potential to improve the conduct and management of elections. But, as Gift Mwonzora argues, without concomitant political will and adherence to electoral laws, digitalisation does little to enhance electoral integrity and democracy in (semi-)authoritarian regimes

Africa’s electoral landscape

Many African nations have struggled to conduct elections that advance electoral democracy. Elections on the continent have been dogged by manipulation, including vote-rigging, tampering with the voter registry, compromised delimitation exercises, opaqueness in voter tabulation and in transmission of results to the national data centres.

Could governments resolve these problems by introducing electronic voting systems? Would it cure the perennial contestation over election results? For now, the jury is still out. It is difficult to predict whether digitalising elections will enhance electoral integrity, especially in Africa's semi- or full-blown authoritarian regimes. There are grounds for cautious hope, and for pessimism.


Digital democracy in an undemocratic context

Zimbabwe is a useful case study for interrogating whether election-based technology will enhance electoral integrity. The country's August 2023 elections were the most fraudulent since it attained independence in 1980.

Some allege that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) was woefully unprepared. Ballot papers, for example, arrived far too late in many urban constituencies. Most polling stations, especially in high-density suburbs, were still without ballots when the polls opened. This forced voters to wait long hours to exercise their constitutional right.

Others claimed this administrative bungling was deliberate voter suppression, focused on urban areas where the ruling party lack support. Indeed, it's hard to believe these were merely technical problems on the part of the election management body (EMB). On the contrary, this was no coincidence. The EMB had long planned this voter suppression in collusion with the incumbent. How else could ballots have arrived well ahead of time in far-flung rural areas where the incumbent enjoys massive support? The only explanation is the systematic disenfranchisement of the urban voter.

High levels of disillusionment and voter apathy, along with delayed voting, blighted this election. Zimbabwe was set once again for another disputed result. There was a difference, however, from the 2018 election petition. This time, the opposition did not dispute the election results in the courts, because the courts looked as if they would automatically support the incumbent. Zimbabwe's judiciary has long been accused of pandering to the incumbent.

So, what happens when democracy is in retreat? Can new technology revive citizens' scant trust in democracy in a context of obvious democratic erosion?


Digitalising elections when democracy is in retreat

Given Africa's history of troubled elections, many have speculated about what digitalisation may bring. Experts have still to consider the human impact of technological innovations. Some are convinced that by introducing new technology, electoral conduct will improve. But in regimes notorious for flouting electoral legislation, technology is not an automatic cure.

Others fear risks from computer hacking, and from tampering with digital gadgets, software, servers and databases. Moreover, there are dangers from sabotage, unreliable power supply, and limited internet access. In some areas, there is also the challenge of digital illiteracy among the electorate.

Will digital technology work effectively in such challenging environments? We cannot yet know. But we have every reason to be circumspect.

Some suggest digital election technology will improve integrity in voter registration, voter inspection, vote casting, result collation, counting and (re-)verification. Indeed, there is some evidence that technology can enhance electoral integrity. However, adoption of new technology does not automatically translate into improved elections. Arcane elections in countries like Zimbabwe show that a regime will never be committed to free and fair elections if the incumbent’s power is compromised. Damning 2023 reports from regional and international observer missions on the Zimbabwean polls offer clear evidence of this.

To achieve genuine integrity, most elections in Africa need political will, commitment and electoral reform, rather than simply the adoption of new technology. But this is not to dismiss entirely the potential for digitalisation to enhance electoral integrity. Cynics might still be correct to suggest that technology does, in some ways, aid electoral manipulation. Hence, to claim that technology will cure the enduring cycle of flawed elections is merely kicking the can down the road. In much of Africa, and in Zimbabwe in particular, credible elections will only be possible after fundamental electoral, political, legislative, media, governance and judicial reform.


This blog initially was published on The Loop.

About the Author

Dr. Gift Mwonzora

Dr Gift Mwonzora is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy and a member of the PolDigWork project team.

~ The views represented in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Brandt School. ~