DIGITAL DEMOCRACY

Coronavirus offers us chance to embrace voting via M-Pesa

If Americans are worried about their ability to preserve their democracy in the middle of a disaster such as Covid-19, we should be, too.

In Summary

• The IEBC could loan Safaricom Sh1 per voter and the telco could deposit one voting shilling into every M-Chaguzi account.

• To vote, the voter would send their shilling to the presidential account of their favourite presidential candidate.

An employee assists a customer to set-up M-Pesa money transfer service on his handset inside a mobile phone care centre in Nairobi, May 11, 2016
An employee assists a customer to set-up M-Pesa money transfer service on his handset inside a mobile phone care centre in Nairobi, May 11, 2016
Image: REUTERS

With the Covid-19 outbreak just a few months before the US elections in November, the New York Times has called for the polls to be secured by making it possible Americans vote from home. This is in case the virus makes it impossible to vote in person.

If Americans are worried about their ability to preserve their democracy in the middle of a disaster such as Covid-19, we should be, too. But we are lucky.

Unlike the United States, we have a tool ready to go. It is called M-Pesa. The time has come for Kenya to consider voting by M-Pesa. We could call it M-Chaguzi. Why M-Chaguzi, you ask? Well, it is a tool that can ensure that democracy survives a pandemic. But there are other reasons too. Let’s count the ways.

 

One is security.  M-Pesa runs on a SIM card, not the handset. This enables it to interact with the mobile network regardless of internet coverage and creates a layer of security by separating it from the internet. M-Pesa does not support multimedia at all. In addition, it has identity verification and encryption features that make it as secure as a bank vault.

To deliver updates to M-Pesa, either the SIM must be returned and exchanged for a new one (which can be costly and inconvenient) or the updates must be delivered over-the-air using specialised, optional SIM features. All of this severely limits the number of updates or changes that can be made over any period of time, which vastly enhances its security. There is no such thing as perfect security, of course, but this is good enough for me.

The second touches on the ease of voter registration. But what voter registration? We are already on M-Pesa. We’ve been there for years. The number of registered users today is higher than the number of registered voters in the last elections. All the IEBC would have to do is to email Safaricom an EXCEL spreadsheet of the updated voter registration roll and for Safaricom to match voters to their M-Pesa accounts. Safaricom would then send an over-the-air update to the M-Pesa toolkit to activate M-Chaguzi and we are good to go!

All it would take is literally one email between the IEBC and Safaricom to get this done. No research or feasibility studies required. No expensive and lengthy procurement procedures necessary. No new software required. 

The third is the convenience. In 2008, Treasury was under pressure from the banking community as they viewed M-Pesa as a threat. Banks lobbied so hard against it, that acting Finance Minister John Michuki had to order an audit of the popular application. In a year, it had grown to three million users and was moving Sh4 billion a month.

“I am not sure M-Pesa will end well,” Michuki said.

By any definition of the term, this was a crisis. Safaricom needed to move fast. So, sometime in late 2008, CEO Michael Joseph to Michuki’s office to confront the issue personally.

 

Now, old Michuki was not a man easily dazzled by words. So like a good salesman, Joseph decided to show and not tell.

After a brief chat, Joseph asked the minister how he paid salaries for his workers at his farm. After the minister described the cumbersome process, the telco CEO whipped out his cell phone and paid the minister’s foreman on the spot using M-Pesa. Like the astute Kenyan that he has become,  Joseph instantly connected with the street smart minister by paying his bills.

When the foreman confirmed to the minister that he had indeed received the cash, Michuki was impressed and instantly became an M-Pesa convert. It was a masterstroke. In one meeting, Safaricom had secured the trust of a powerful ally.

If old Michuki could appreciate the convenience of running his farm from his office, it’s a sure bet that 20 million Kenyans would appreciate the convenience of voting from their comfort.

Fourth is cost.  The infrastructure is already up and running, now moving Sh5 trillion a year and does so with 100 per cent accuracy and total system integrity.

Most countries vote only once every five years because elections are expensive, cumbersome and slow due to old-fashioned methods of voting. Whenever a national issue arises, I should be able to vote on it using my phone through an electronic referendum and I move on with my life! It is not only quicker, but cheaper! We can vote continuously on issues that come up such as teh Building Bridges Initiative through the phone.

Technology enhances public participation in governance and Kenya is well-positioned to embrace such a digital political future.

HOW IT WOULD WORK                   

The IEBC could loan Safaricom Sh1 per voter and the telco could deposit one voting shilling into every M-Chaguzi account. To vote, the voter would send their shilling to the presidential account of their favourite presidential candidate. They would be able to send only one shilling to their favourite candidate. Each candidate’s account would start off with zero shillings. At the end of voting, the candidate whose account has the most shillings wins.

In a scenario where there are 30 million voters, this entire exercise would cost only Sh30 million. And of course, once the vote is over and the winner announced (the one with the most voting shillings), all the money would revert to the IEBC, thereby costing the taxpayer nothing.

 It would be impossible to rig the election because M-Pesa doesn’t lie. The only way to rig the system would be by creating fake vote shillings. However, M-Pesa runs on the SIM card, which separates it from the handset and the internet, rendering it hack-proof.

Meanwhile, any changes instigated from within the network take a long time to push through as it is a very deliberate process. In other words, it would be impossible for unauthorised persons to create artificial voting shillings and feed them into M-Chaguzi.

Today, M-Pesa moves over Sh15 billion a day, or over Sh5 trillion shillings a year. If we can trust it with this, we can trust M-Chaguzi to move a mere 30 million voting shillings every five years.