South Africa's Election Technology Coup
Huma, Willy, The World and I
This fledgling democracy leapfrogged its voting process to the brink of the twenty-first century using technology ranging from the global positioning system to satellite dish receivers and the Internet.
On a rainy day in November 1998, helicopters carried equipment for South Africa's second democratic election into remote, mountainous areas in Kwazulu Natal Province. Farther south, in the Eastern Cape Province, an ox wagon delivered bar code scanners to a rural village, completing the job left unfinished when an off-road vehicle broke down. For people living in some parts of rural South Africa, which has the youngest constitution in the world, no other mode of transportation was available to assure their registration for and participation in their democratic right to vote.
Delivering technology to remote places is only part of the untold story of how South Africa prepared for its second national elections. The process, actually more of a journey, was guided by South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), whose establishment had been authorized by an act passed in 1996. The IEC is responsible for conducting national, provincial, and municipal elections as provided by the constitution.
As a result of hard lessons learned from South Africa's first national election in 1994, the commission had decided to rely on information technology to assure that all eligible voters would be identified, registered, and provided the opportunity to vote in national-level elections.
On June 2, 1999, the IEC's efforts came to fruition as the world watched South Africans go to the polls. Recalling the riots and long, two-day queues of 1994, the media paid special attention to the political situation, noting the peaceful, enthusiastic 80 percent voter turnout. And, as Nelson Mandela handed over the mantle of the presidency to his democratically elected successor, Thabo Mbeki, the world recounted how Mandela had led his country out of the dark days of apartheid.
What the world missed was the amazing effort and undertaking that produced these results, which were announced within five days of the vote.
"Above all we wanted to avoid the confusion that occurred during the 1994 general election, which was largely due to the lack of logistical planning," said Howard Sackstein, IEC chief director of delimitation and planning. "There had been limited control over the numbers and identities of the people who voted at each polling station. Voting supplies were inadequate, and security was ill-prepared to handle the throngs of people."
In the 18 months prior to the 1999 elections, the IEC had mapped the country, drawn voting districts, registered 18.4 million voters, and built an information technology infrastructure needed to support the electoral process. The size of the commission's task cannot be overstated, nor the importance of the legacy that it left to the country. The project not only brought the people their elected government, it also established for the first time in rural, remote parts of South Africa the kind of information infrastructure that is an essential underpinning for modern economic development.
"The technology is a gift from the commission to our country's people-- particularly in the rural areas," said Mandla Mchunu, chief electoral officer of the IEC. "Telecommunications is central to improving education, which is the cornerstone of economic development in these parts of South Africa."
Using advanced systems and processes, the IEC effort introduced technologies that leapfrogged the world's existing best practices. The IEC's efforts integrated business processes, people, and technology to ensure a well-oiled election machine. Without ever having the land-line telecommunications network that generally provides the foundation for satellite communications and other technology, remote parts of South Africa jumped into the twenty-first century with leading-edge information technology.
Third party input
Faced with such a short time frame and the huge, complicated task of delivering a smooth election process, ensuring one vote per person, the IEC sought outside assistance from Andersen Consulting, the world's largest management and technology consultancy.
In a crucial early step, the IEC, which was funded by the South African Parliament and international donations, reengineered its own structure and business processes to enable the commission to manage elections more efficiently and nimbly. Making these changes required both new information technology and Andersen Consulting's specialized business and technical assistance to consolidate operations.
New systems enabled the IEC to administer the voter registration process and the 1999 general election on schedule, in contrast to the 1994 general election. The IEC also added another level of security to ensure the election's integrity, frequently an issue in countries with less well-established election processes and practices.
Record-breaking speed and incredible precision characterized the work at every step of the way. The team did not have a minute to lose. The June 2 election date loomed on the not too distant horizon, an immovable deadline that had to be met if the IEC was to deliver the elections in 1999 as envisioned. One of the first tasks of the new information technology infrastructure would be to support a massive voter registration effort.
"Time was of the essence, making it imperative that the entire project stay on schedule," said Mchunu. "The IEC was established in [the beginning of] 1998, with an indelible deadline and monumental project facing the commission. The country was relying on us to ensure the delivery of the democratic process."
From the beginning it was clear that South Africa lacked the electronic census data, electronically developed maps, infrastructure, and technology needed to structure an efficient, organized election process. Still, the IEC needed to register voters and assign them to voting districts. The IEC also needed a means to openly communicate with the electorate. Systems were required for registering the nation's many political parties and a brimful roster of candidates.
Faced with such an array of clear deficiencies, the IEC organized a team to tackle these challenges one by one and explore international best practices to effectively manage and limit the number of voters at each polling place. The 1994 elections had been hindered by a lack of electoral and logistical planning, which would have controlled who voted at each polling station.
Drawing the voting districts
At the outset of the effort to draw voting district boundaries, the IEC determined that no more than 3,500 people should be assigned to any one polling station in urban areas and no more than 1,200 in rural portions of the country. Out of a desire to encourage voting, the IEC also decided that no one should have to travel more than 10 kilometers (6 miles) to vote.
"To make this vision a reality, we first created a comprehensive geographical information system [GIS] that allowed us to draw boundaries for voting districts," said Sackstein. "Boundaries were determined by population, distance, natural boundaries [such as rivers and mountains], and roads on which citizens could travel to their voting station."
To optimize the usefulness of the GIS, the project team created it as a nationwide, consolidated, comprehensive database and filled it with details about South Africa's communities and terrain. The project-- perhaps one of the most ambitious of its type ever undertaken--was named Project ELF (electoral boundary definition). "Fortunately, the questions we asked of the experts did not include how long such a project should take, as experts in America and Australia later told us such projects generally take three to five years," said Mchunu. "But the team beat the odds, completing the work in just 13 months."
With the GIS nearing completion, the delimitation commenced in April 1998. A 100-person team worked round the clock for four months. Once the maps and voting districts were drawn, the IEC could direct telecommunication companies to voting stations so the communications infrastructure--including a combination of microwave and cellular towers, fax lines, and satellite dishes--could be built.
The maps were produced in one of the world's largest map-plotting rooms, which had been built for the sole purpose of supporting construction of the election infrastructure. During four frenzied months, the production facility issued 300,000 color maps. Today, the facility stands as one of the world's largest map-plotting rooms. It and those maps that can be reused are now serving the commission's efforts to sustain ongoing registration leading up to the South African local elections, which are due by November 2000.
The maps enabled the IEC to provide citizens with directions to their voting booth, ensuring one vote per voter, and to deploy security forces to secure the voting stations. From a logistical standpoint, the maps also enabled the IEC to distribute election supplies to individual voting booths. Even prior to the elections, the maps served as an aid, helping election officials monitor the registration progress, pinpoint potential security issues, and see what route they should take when needed at a particular location.
Recognizing the role of the news media in ensuring free and fair elections in South Africa, the IEC made the maps and graphical data available to reporters and on the Internet.
"Journalists serve a crucial role in a democracy," said Mchunu. "We wanted to make it easy for reporters to monitor South Africa's election process, so there would be no doubt about the legitimacy of the final election tally."
Voter registration and communication
With only months until the elections, registering voters was a daunting task. To expedite the process, the IEC relied on 25,000 bar code scanners that it distributed to registration sites throughout the country. Since bar coding was already part of the country's national identity record system and each adult was identified by a unique bar code, it was natural to incorporate bar codes into the voter registration process. The system worked so well that more than 18 million potential voters were registered in 9 working days,
The networked voter registration system, linked to 526 locations, required five months to develop using an Internet-based application that aided the creation, validation, and maintenance of the national voters roll. The registration system's stand-alone software was distributed to each location via a satellite dish communications network called a very small aperture terminals wide area network (VSAT- WAN), an architecture selected and constructed to enable unrestricted reception regardless of the geography. The VSAT-WAN also was optimal since it did not require telephone land lines, which are nonexistent in some remote areas of South Africa.
The VSAT-WAN's infrastructure was built in record time and was arguably one of the fastest implementations of its type in the world. The building took about six weeks and required installation of 450 satellite dishes at electoral offices throughout the country. The team's challenge was completing the negotiations with local authorities throughout the country and managing the logistics to ensure timely completion of the project.
The network also needed to be connected to a broadcast telecommunications station and the IEC's local computer network. A satellite-based data communications network, cellular telephones, and two-way radio, much like the military uses, were employed to enable polling stations to report back to the IEC's election center. To avert any downtime and make the network highly reliable, a fault redundant hot-standby site was installed.
To connect local electoral officers to the VSAT-WAN, the IEC effort deployed computer equipment (nearly 1,600 computers and 44 servers) to the 450 electoral offices in less than four weeks. To protect the purity of registration data, the data management guidelines required that information be encrypted and transferred daily to the IEC server, where the data were validated against the Department of Home Affairs' national populations register. From these data, the IEC could generate comprehensive voter statistics in each district and conduct an analysis of the registered voters based on gender, rural-urban, and formal- informal registration data, with the informal data accounting for those living in squatter camps.
While many advanced economies in the Western world are dabbling in Internet applications to streamline business processes and improve citizen service, South Africa's IEC moved into the next century in high gear, with an Internet-based approach to advanced information technology. Guided by the scope of work to be completed and a tight timetable, the country's senior election officials determined that the Internet offered the best solution.
Using Internet-based applications in a Microsoft environment also presented a solution that would be easy for election workers to learn and use, allowing sharing between the suite of applications in the required integrated database.
As preparations for the elections proceeded, the IEC wanted to communicate openly with voters, giving them information about the commission and the elections. The Internet provided that communication vehicle.
"We wanted the people to understand our vision and mission for the elections, which are at the core of democracy," said Mchunu. As IEC's Web site gained popularity, the IEC upgraded it, making it more interactive and enriching it with voting district maps and voter registration information. The bandwidth also was expanded to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of visitors, as those who live in urban areas, unlike their country counterparts, are voracious users of the Internet. A second Web site was established to publish election results.
Party registration and candidate management
By September 1998, work was under way to develop systems to register the nation's 50 political parties and nearly 4,970 political candidates. The party registration system prints registration certificates, produces statistical information, and reports and maintains details about individual political parties.
The candidate management system registers and tracks candidate activities. The candidate management system captures candidate lists submitted by the political parties. Each candidate was cross-checked against the voters' roll to ensure the individual's true identity. A provisional list was produced within 48 hours of initial capture of candidate names and electronically distributed to the 9 provincial and 453 local electoral officer offices for public inspection.
The system also captured objections and appeals to candidates. Within three weeks, the lists were finalized and 7,141 candidate certificates were printed. Final lists were printed and made available to the government printing press for publication.
A transparent, secure system
Collecting and tabulating the results once the registered voters cast their ballots was quite another matter.
"If the world and, most important, the people of South Africa were to have confidence in the election results, the country needed a transparent system that collected, tabulated, and displayed election results in a very clean, straightforward fashion," said Mchunu.
Looking for a model to guide development of this process, the IEC's leadership traveled to Australia in 1998 to observe how election results were consolidated and displayed in that country's National Tally Room. With the Australian model in mind--although Australia's was more a media center than the IEC's desired operational center--the IEC developed its fiber-optically-wired election center in four weeks. A 100-person team with 13 project managers created a smooth process for consolidating and centralizing tabulation of election results. The center, powered by 25 high-speed servers and linked to a giant automated call center, provided the country's registered political parties with immediate access to election results and verified ballots if discrepancies crept into the reporting process.
The results verification system checked results from each of the 14,500 polling stations, comparing election returns received by fax, telephone, and wide-area network. Any inconsistencies were brought to the attention of management for reconciliation. The system produced 26 on-line reports that assisted the election management process.
At peak times, the system was accessed by 900 users. It was built to handle 30,000 fax input transactions, 30,000 telephonic results, and a total of 30,000 results captured at the country's local electoral offices in a five-day period.
Australian officials admired South Africa's election center. Paul Anderson, Australian Electoral Commission national tally operations manager, remarked: "You have taken our concept and made it into something that we can only aspire to." Australia's Electoral Commission chairperson, Bill Gray, said: "You are a Third World country with a solution that surpasses anything any First World country could achieve."
Logical security and disaster recovery
From the outset, security was a high priority. Due to the sheer number of people working on the project and the accelerated rate of infrastructure installation, security issues had to be addressed on multiple levels.
The IEC headquarters were protected from attacks via the WAN and Internet connections by installing a fire wall, a software-based protective shield. A secret disaster recovery site was created, enabling replication of critical information at regular intervals in addition to the regular backup process. This site also was designed to manage registration in the event of catastrophe at the IEC.
To ensure the highest levels of security, an outside security- consulting firm performed a logical security audit on the internal systems. The IEC needed to be sure that voting results fed into the system were accurate, especially since the 1994 elections had been criticized as fraudulent. Independent audit firms and some government organizations were invited to preaudit the logical security, results verification, and seat allocation applications to verify the security of the infrastructure and applications.
The next frontier
The IEC, determined to deliver a smooth electoral process, developed a system that relies on the latest logistics management principles and state-of-the-art technology to support the elections in South Africa's young democracy. The rate at which this complicated system was developed and audited to maintain its security and reliability was largely the result of the IEC's ability to clearly communicate its needs and vision, coupled with its wisdom in using the best development tools available to meet those requirements.
Now, the IEC is focused on the future. Its leadership is eager to assimilate information from others about managing special local and provincial election issues, such as the needs of regions where many languages are spoken and where there are substantial rural populations. Mature democracies also have other organizations and structures that strengthen democracy and encourage citizen participation in the electoral process. The first stop on this continuing journey was the United States, where during a U.S. Information Service study tour, IEC members met with officials, activists, and academics in Boston, New York City, Washington, Miami, Chicago, and Sacramento.
As IEC officials continue this journey, they receive calls from the United Nations and European and Latin American officials, inquiring about their feat this past June. Callers ask: "How did you manage to orchestrate such an amazing transformation, which resulted in an election process that is a model for the rest of the world?" While honored, the IEC is not complacent. These officials continue to study best practices that they can introduce or improve upon as they fulfill the solemn responsibility they feel for their nation.n
On the Internet
Additional Reading:South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission www.elections.org.za
Australian Electoral Commission www.aec.gov.au
U.S. Federal Election Commission www.fec.gov
Willy Huma, an Andersen Consulting partner within the government practice in South Africa, led the firm's team, which partnered with the IEC to build the information technology infrastructure that supported South Africa's elections. Andersen Consulting is a global management and technology consulting organization.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: South Africa's Election Technology Coup. Contributors: Huma, Willy - Author. Magazine title: The World and I. Volume: 14. Issue: 11 Publication date: November 1999. Page number: 178. © 1999 News World Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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