Biometric voting: Five things that could go terribly wrong

Recent media reports to the effect that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) is soon going to get $50 million for biometric voter registration (BVR) has brought us one step closer to adoption of an electoral system whose promised implementation has civic society and the opposition falling over each other to praise Zec for supposedly taking a step in the right direction.

Source: Biometric voting: Five things that could go terribly wrong – NewsDay Zimbabwe October 5, 2016


I can’t help but feel a strong sense of déjà vu when I think of the 2013 election, which saw prominent figures in the opposition publicly endorsing Zec, but later crying foul in the wake of contested poll results.

Could this be where we are headed to again in 2018?

Biometric voting involves the use of physiological human characteristics such as fingerprints, one’s voice or iris to register people to vote and determine who gets and does not get to vote in a plebiscite.

In Zimbabwe, if implemented, this will replace the manual system that consists of use of one’s Identity Document for voter registration and casting one’s vote.

I am not going to talk about the benefits of biometric voting; the State media and non-governmental organisations like the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) have already done that.

What is left is for the public to be informed of each and every single possible way biometric voting can be manipulated or malfunction: I know of five technical ways this can happen.

First, there is what is known as false rejection. This occurs when a biometric voting kit rejects a person who is a bona fide registered voter.

The 2012 Nigerian election is a classic example where even one of the candidates, former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, was falsely rejected by a biometric voting kit.

Many factors can account for false rejection of a voter by a biometric system: dirty hands, scars on fingers, skin diseases and ageing have all been associated with rejection of voters were fingerprints are used.

Of course, there are features other than the fingerprint that can be used for biometric voting but it is the most common.

Second, a biometric voting kit can falsely accept a voter who is either not registered or is registered under a different name.

What this means is that every time a biometric voting kit confuses someone for a voter registered under a certain name, when the person actually registered under that name tries to vote, they will not be allowed to do so.

How is false acceptance of a voter possible? The answer is quite simple: fingerprint scanners do not match a fingerprint with a stored template exactly as it is; it reduces input to a set of typical characteristics.

As such, two different individuals who have similar typical fingerprint characteristics can confuse biometric systems, resulting in the false acceptance of a voter.

Third, there is spoofing — the practice of engineering the false acceptance of a voter by a biometric system through mimicking or using the features of a registered voter.

For instance, one can obtain and use someone else’s finger print to vote in a complicated process which makes spoofing very unlikely in the Zimbabwean context — unlikely but possible.

Fourth — and this one is very possible in the Zimbabwean context — there is the possibility of distributed denial of service (DDOS).
Service, in this context, refers to voting which can be denied to citizens perceived to support the opposition by distributing malfunctioning machines to opposition strongholds.

According to scholars from the University of California, in Ghana’s December 2012 elections, there was a non-random pattern to the frequent breakdown of biometric voting equipment.

In polling stations with a randomly assigned domestic election observer, machines were about 50% less likely to breakdown than machines in stations without observers.

This suggests that some form of DDOS was used to disenfranchise voters in that election.

In Zimbabwe, there have been allegations of disenfranchisement of voters under the old system — the new system could make disenfranchisement of voters by uncouth elements much easier.

Last, there is the swapping of biometric templates, where a third party replaces a number of biometric templates with other templates, which will allow them to manipulate the results of an election.

A biometric template in the context of elections consists of the distinct characteristics of voters in digital form such as finger prints.

When these are swapped with other templates containing biometric data different to that of registered voters, it means those who are not registered to do so can vote, while registered voters will be denied a chance to vote.

These are all purely technical aspects of biometric voting that show how it is susceptible to manipulation and how it can malfunction, but there are also other issues to be considered like the fact that our electricity is not completely reliable.

In Kenya’s 2013 elections, there were electricity problems in some of the classrooms that were used as polling stations and laptops deployed as biometric kits ran out of battery power just an hour after voting began.

Furthermore, a biometric system makes it very easy to intimidate voters in the rural areas by making them believe it is possible to ascertain how they vote.

The likelihood of villagers casting their vote in fear in the next elections is very high.

Technology has always intimidated the rural folk due to lack of sufficient knowledge on how it works.

Unscrupulous elements can take advantage of this fact to coerce rural people to vote for them.

It boggles the mind why African countries, which are behind in terms of technology, want to adopt biometric voting at a time some of the more developed countries are actually moving away from it.

The fact that one person, through the click of a mouse or tap of a keyboard, can manipulate a biometric system in a way dozens of people cannot manipulate traditional voting, should give those advocating for biometric voting pause.

Disagreement between the ruling party and the opposition has characterised discussion of the system that is currently in place: what are the prospects of political parties agreeing on a new system when they could never agree on the old one?

Zivai Mhetu is a student from the University of Zimbabwe Political Science and Administrative Studies Department. He writes in his own capacity


  • comment-avatar
    Derek Matyszak 6 years ago

    It would be useful if this writer separated problems relating to biometric registration from those related to biometric and electronic voting which are not the same thing.

    What, for example, will ZEC’s policy at the polling station be? Is the intention that if finger print recognition is rejected, the person cannot vote, or (and especially since biometric rolls often contain photographs of the voter) will the person be allowed to vote on presentation of their ID in any event? This is the kind of issue that needs to be addressed. Zimbabwe desperately needs a new voters roll, and if re-registration is to take place, it makes sense to capture biometric data while doing so.

  • comment-avatar
    Barry 6 years ago

    It’s still first world technology which we are not ready for. We can barely make swipe cards work. This kind of technology needs constant backup and maintenance. Apart from the question of manipulation.