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Electronic system holds up during Kenyan election

During the 2013 election, officials had to switch to manual systems at the last minute.

By Rebecca Linke  |  August 9, 2017

2017-kenya-registration

Testing out the electronics during the voter registration drive prior to Kenya’s 2013 election.

Why It Matters

During a hotly contested presidential election, having electronic systems run smoothly is paramount to public trust.

Updated Aug. 14, 8:35 a.m. ET: Incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner of the presidential race in Kenya, but challenger Raila Odinga does not accept the results, saying he will possibly take the case to the United Nations for arbitration. As many as 24 people have been reported killed in post-election violence.

Updated Aug. 10, 1:45 p.m. ET: The chairman of Kenya’s electoral commission has said that hackers did attempt to target its IT system, but they were unsuccessful. There have been some isolated incidents of violence, but they do not appear to be widespread.

Kenya went to the polls on Tuesday in a hotly contested presidential election between incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta and challenger Raila Odinga. This is Odinga’s fourth time running for president.

Previous elections have had their share of issues. Before the 2013 election, officials heavily promoted the use of new technology during the voting process, but things did not go as planned.

“Last time, two things failed in many places: the biometrics voter ID system and the electronic transmission. They had to resort to manual voting,” said MIT Sloan associate professor Tavneet Suri.

Suri, along with MIT economist Benjamin Marx and Harvard Business School professor Vincent Pons, and in collaboration with Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, conducted research during that election where they encouraged people to vote by sending out text messages. They found that those messages raised expectations about the commission, and when electronic voting mechanisms failed, the people who had received the texts had a reduction in trust in a well-organized election. That was a problem that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission did not want repeated. The commission was created following the 2007 election, when vote rigging led to violence that lasted for months and resulted in more than 1,000 dead and 600,000 displaced.

“The technology has been improved,” Suri said. “They are still using similar mechanisms, but the implementation is different since the last election.”

Those improvements again include biometric voter identification machines and a system for electronically transmitting results. Both worked during this election. “Relative to the last election, I think they have done a really good job,” Suri said. “In that sense, everyone seems to be impressed with the implementation.”

That does not mean that the entire election process has gone smoothly, though. In the lead-up to the election, the person is charge of Kenya’s electronic voting system was found dead. And while provisional online results after Tuesday’s election show Kenyatta in the lead, Odinga is contesting those numbers. Legally, Kenya has seven days to announce the results, and the chairman of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission has made clear that no one has won or lost yet.