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Afghanistan turns to biometrics to tackle election fraud



Since the Taliban were toppled from power in 2001, every Afghan election has been marred by growing instances of fraud.

The scale of the country’s problem was underlined this month when 10 election officials were jailed over corruption, among them the two men with ultimate responsibility for organising elections and monitoring them.

In the run-up to another presidential election on Saturday, organisers and campaign managers are claiming that technology may offer the first real solutions to Afghanistan’s perpetual vote fraud problems.

Election authorities have put their faith in biometric voter verification machines, already shipped to every polling station to take the fingerprints and photo of every voter and record the time they cast their ballot.

Those timestamps and individual voter details – linked to a national identity card – should make ballot stuffing extremely difficult, say experts monitoring the poll.

The machines failed on their first hurried deployment in 2018 parliamentary polls, frequently ignored or abandoned without consequences, but authorities say that is because there was too little training. This time only verified votes will be accepted.

There are some concerns outstanding. Without a national biometric voter register, impersonation is possible, and while the machines are designed to transmit real-time data through a sim card, a quarter of polling stations do not have mobile coverage.

There is also the possibility that if ballot stuffing is ruled out, corrupt candidates will simply shift to other forms of cheating including trying to intimidate supporters of a rival candidate to stop them voting, or damaging ballot boxes from an opponent’s stronghold to invalidate the votes inside.

A man tries to control his donkey loaded with ballot boxes and other election material as he transports them to polling stations in Shutul, Panjshir province.

A man tries to control his donkey loaded with ballot boxes and other election material as he transports them to polling stations in Shutul, Panjshir province. Photograph: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

But if even one form of cheating can be stopped, it may go some way to improving confidence in Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy.

The campaign of Ashraf Ghani is also convinced technology will help them keep tabs on overall vote tallies, and provide early confirmation of results.

An app built for the campaign will be on the phone of a campaign observer in every polling centre. When results are tallied at the end of voting the volunteer will take a picture of the results sheet and manually enter the vote total for each candidate.

Those details will feed into a database that the team says will calculate final results either late on Saturday or the next morning, weeks before the official tally.

One official who worked on the app said they were confident about winning, and promised to announce details of their victory as soon as all results came in. Asked if they would still go ahead unveiling details if Ghani’s main challenger Abdullah Abdullah seemed to have won, he declined to answer.


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