Should ZEC look towards Online Voter Registration?

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it has had on the elections in Zimbabwe, it is time the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission accepts COVID-19 as the new normal and finds solutions in providing citizens alternative platforms, different from the norm, to exercise their constitutional rights and participate in electoral processes. In order to vote, every Zimbabwean must register first. Making registration secure, efficient, and easily accessible by voters should be a goal for the ZEC.

Voter registration is a systematic process that determines the eligibility of citizens to vote in an election. It serves three purposes, which are; to ensure that everyone eligible to vote can do so; prevent those not legally entitled to vote from voting, and to curb multiple voting by an individual. The practise and procedure for voter registration is prescribed in section 17A of the Electoral Act which states that voter registration must be open and continuous in all ZEC district and provincial centres in Zimbabwe. Citizens should be allowed to register as a voter anytime they want by filling out the registration form and submitting biometric data to a ZEC Voter Registration official who captures the submitted data. In 2017 the ZEC adopted a form of electronic registration model named BVR.

However, in recent times due to COVID-19, concerns around the safety of this process have been raised, which has shifted registration conversations to whether it is possible to adopt an online registration model for Zimbabwe to support the existing registration methods.

Online registration allows an individual to register by using the internet this simplifies the registration process. Online voter registration systems supplement the traditional registration process and follow essentially the same process, but instead of filling out a paper application, the voter fills out a form via an internet site, and that form is submitted electronically to election officials for approval. In recent times banks, money transfer agents i.e Ecocash introduced individual registration through online platforms.

In the short-term, a shift towards online registration overcomes the problems that have been present since the advent of COVID-19. Online registration removes the need to physically present yourself at registration centres, and guarantees the protection of ZEC registration officials, who through conventional registration methods sometimes interact with over 100 people per day.

In the long term, the benefits of a change to online registration include that globally registration has been deemed to be more accurate and easier to collate for election officials. Online registration reaches an increasingly internet-savvy population, especially young Zimbabweans who have more and more become disenfranchised from electoral processes. Additionally, in an environment where calls on accountability and transparency around voter registration and the voters’ roll are amplified as the country heads towards 2023, online registration makes updating registrations efficient, increasing election credibility and reducing Election Day problems.

However, no system is perfect including any change towards an online registration system. Several concerns should be noted and addressed when constructing policies to add online registration to the options available to the public. Online registration may not help all sections of society equally. When the time comes for crafting an online registration system, it is important to consider and mitigate its potential for exacerbating existing disparities in the electorate. Issues that need to be taken into consideration include: inequality in Internet access; unequal economic opportunities; and other circumstances that may limit access to the online system.

Globally, electronic and online registration systems have become commonplace and can be implemented in a number of ways taking into consideration the specific needs of a particular country. All online registration systems ought to be as expansive and accessible as possible and to work toward universal registration. This includes expanding the opportunity and making the process accessible for those with disabilities and other vulnerable and/or marginalised communities.

Source: Election Resource Centre (ERC)

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