Only 60% of us was prepared to participate in a process that was process-flawed from the beginning. That is a very small margin.
The pervasive Swapo corruption which continues to shock us is not the biggest threat to democracy in Namibia. That dubious distinction must go squarely to the electronic voting machines, not for how they make people vote but for how they deterred people to vote.
These contested (detested) machines will go down in history as the single biggest contributor to voter stay-away. The issue is not whether they work or not, or whether they can be hacked or not but whether they promoted or inhibited the electoral process. This is based on the commonsense consideration whether the machines encourage voters to participate or instead, chase them away.
When we were first introduced to the electronic voting machines in 2014, they were presented as a panacea for every single Namibian voter. No more duplication of registered voters, no more ballot fraud and no more discrepancies when it comes to counting.
I am convinced the voting machines work and they work well. I am equally convinced that they can be hacked but then again, why would anybody bother to go to all this trouble if the elections are above board. Furthermore, there are not that many people with the technical skill who can actually do the hacking – perhaps twenty individuals in the private sector and a very small handful of spooks on the hill behind Windhoek High School.
The problem with the voting machines is the process. When it transpired in 2014 that they were not the solution that was claimed, there was zero talk of improving the process. The machines do what they are designed for and any breach in the security of their systems will be detected quickly.
But nobody could foretell that they will keep you standing in a queue in summer for ten hours and this is exactly where there biggest shortcoming surfaced. Simply put, we do not have enough of them.
I have spoken to hundreds of people who bluntly refused to vote, not because of apathy but because they did not trust the process. Every single person who bluntly stated that he or she will not go stand in a queue again laid their attitude in front of the electronic voting machines.
The excuses that were offered in 2014 were feeble and without substance. But at that point, it was rather irrelevant since the undertakings to improve the process was only made after the elections. And over the next five years most voters forgot the ordeal they had to go through in 2014.
In that year, my family and I stood in the queue at Dagbreek for ten hours. Later on we made shifts to go get something to eat or to drink or just answer the call of nature. Still, as it became obvious that the process has broken down, further irritation arrived in the form of hundreds of voters bused in from neighbourhoods very far from Dagbreek. The ultimate result was a resolve never again to stand in a voters’ queue that made a mockery of the process.
Now remember, late in 2014 when the dust had settled somewhat, we were promised that the process will be sorted out and that a similar catastrophe will not happen again, ever. How deluded we were.
In the runup to last week’s elections, the electronic voting machines again featured prominently in the press but this time the debate was about their trustworthiness, or at least that of the officials under whose operation they will be. Very little featured about the process, understandably because most of us has forgotten what happened five years ago.
There was only one report that came to my attention where the analyst came to the conclusion that there are too few voting machines, advising that the Electoral Commission will have to double the number and even that will only reduce the voting time to two hours per voter, queue and actual voting together. Needless to say, the entire focus was on their reliability and not on the polling machinery’s ability to process the number of voters.
Like so many other mistakes we in Namibia keep repeating, we went ahead and did the same with the entire voting process. Why, because we depended again on machines, and because there were not nearly enough polling stations, especially in the urban areas, and because we lost sight of the process while debating technicalities.
After driving around for a couple of hours on voting day and after trying six different stations, I gave it up for a bad job, only confirming that the undertaking made five years ago was quickly forgotten. At all the stations I visited, some as late as 20:30, the scene was the same. The queues were longer than 100 metres with hundreds of people still waiting their turn. And most disconcerting, on my rounds of finding a suitable place to vote, I noticed that the same voters were still in exactly the same spot one hour later.
Of course, many people will not agree with me and level all sorts of accusations about patriotism or similar emotional considerations when in fact, all they have to consider is whether the process supported the voting or undermined it.
In the final instance, I believe my views are supported by the statistics. A mere 60% of registered voters voted in the end. Now that is a dismal show. It is not a case of apathy – this was one of the most interesting and lively election runups since 1989 – but of what you can endure. Most of the non-voting people I talked to was adamant, stating very clearly that they will not go stand in a queue for four or five hours to participate in a process that does not work and of which the outcome will not change.
Did the electronic voting machines cost Swapo its two thirds majority? I am 100% sure they did.