2017 Election in Kenya: President and CEO Diary

2017 Election in Kenya: President and CEO Diary featured image
Publication Date: 
8 Aug 2017

News Type:

IFES President and CEO Bill Sweeney traveled to Kenya for the 2017 general elections. Through this feature, he shares his experiences from Kenya during this critical election:

Election Day

Polls opened at six in the morning today in Kenya, where citizens came to the polls to vote for president, county governors, members of the Senate, representatives to the National Assembly (including women county representatives to the National Assembly), and members of county assemblies.

Early reports from around the country indicated that most polling stations opened on time with polling staff and materials in place. The biometric voter identification technology employed by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) is also reportedly working well. At his first press conference today, IEBC Chair Wafula Chebukati said that Kenya was on the path toward a credible, free and fair election, a sentiment echoed by media commentary.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) is not an observer. The IFES team is dispersed throughout our Kenya office, the IEBC offices, and the National Tall Center at Bomas. International monitoring missions include the Carter Center, European Union Election Observation Mission, the National Democratic Institute, as well as four different African regional organizations and Kenyan civil society groups. The religious communities are fielding 12,000 observers. IFES has briefed most of these groups in the lead up to the vote these last few weeks.

Bill Sweeney imageIFES President and CEO Bill Sweeney meets with former Secretary of State John Kerry, the co-chair of the Carter Center’s observation mission in Kenya, at the IEBC’s National Tally Center at Bomas.

At midday, voters were steadily heading to the polls and the process was working. Thinking back to the lead up to the election, I’m struck by how much progress IFES programs have achieved over the last six months – it is great to see firsthand. Nonetheless, there are still challenges ahead. With all the progress made, it seems like quite some time since demonstrations lead to the removal of the IEBC commissioners a year ago. By the time the new IEBC commissioners took office, there was only seven months left until these elections.

Given the short time the new IEBC had to organize the August polls, IFES emerged as a valuable partner in preparing for the vote. Through IFES Kenya’s efforts, poll worker training manuals were written and cascade training techniques were used to prepare approximately 380,000 Kenyans staffing 40,883 polling stations. IFES also provided some of the most experienced African information communication and technology professionals to the IEBC for an election where technology is critical. Furthermore, voter education initiatives, particularly directed at young voters (46 percent of registered voters are between 19 and 29), women, and people with disabilities have seen positive results.

Given the violence that has characterized past elections in Kenya, a key component of IFES programming has been focused on the prevention and mitigation of election violence. We have panels of community leaders organized to immediately respond to violence. But, we hope that their work is not needed in the following days.

The next challenge to this election will likely not emerge until the count starts to come in. Both incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and his major competitor Raila Odinga are prepared to announce their respective victories, with all data suggesting a close result. How Kenyans respond to the eventual results is what we are all waiting to see.

The Day After: The IEBC Address Technical Challenges

Around 4:00 p.m. on Election Day, I returned to polling stations at the St. George and the Kilimani Primary schools in Nairobi where people had been lining up at 4:30 a.m. for the 6:00 a.m. open. The uniform expectation was that the polling stations would see better than 60 percent turnout by the end of the day. All of these polling stations had been without incident: the biometric voter identification worked well and paper back up was available for those who failed fingerprint identification. 

Voters were still in line at 4 p.m., but the lines were much shorter than in the morning. Many people said that they decided the afternoon lines would be shorter – an hour or so compared to four hours in the morning. The commitment to the opportunity to choose their leaders and future was inspiring. 

I noticed the presence of parents with small children during the afternoon. Parents never put their children at risk. By the afternoon, the police and security personnel were clearly bored. In the morning, the director of security at the St. George school laughed with me about his assignment. He said this neighborhood was not violent and his team would be standing around all day, although he appreciated the need for a security team. The security forces were uniformed, carried automatic weapons, and were not intimidating or threatening to voters or the democratic process. 

Polls officially closed at 5 p.m. and late in the afternoon IEBC Chair Wafula Chebukati announced that if polls had not opened on time in the morning, then extra time had to be added at the end of the day so voters had the same amount of time to vote at each polling station, creating a staggered polling closing across the country. Many Kenyans reportedly voted late in the day. Best global practice is that everyone in line at closing time has the right to vote. The chairman’s appropriate decision meant later closing times and reporting of results. 

On the morning of Election Day, everyone was paying attention to whether polling stations would open on time equipped with materials. The answer was a definitive yes. In fact, most Kenyan poll workers usually arrive the night before and sleep at their stations because people begin queuing at four in the morning. Next, we all looked to the operation of Kenya Integrated Elections Management System (KIEMS), a component of which is biometric voter identification (for more on KIEMS, please see “How does the Kenya Integrated Elections Management System work?” in IFES’ FAQs). Again, the answer was yes, as the system properly identified citizens across the country. 

Along with this robust biometric technology in Kenya, the paper voter registration document includes a voter’s color photograph, which is a far more robust form of identification than any procedure in the United States or many Western democracies. In my prior life, I invested a fair amount of time understanding fingerprint identification systems and I can say that the Kenyan system worked pretty well. 

The next challenge was the results transmission process. KIEMS was to report provisional results per polling station, which would also be available to the media, civil society, and party agents. The major concern was that about one-third of the country might not have 3G cellular coverage. It appeared the KIEMS data was being transmitted to the National Tally Center and being received, but the transmission couldn’t progress through the server to be received and displayed. As this system paralysis was being resolved, the entire country started asking questions about the count, the technology and the IEBC. 

In my presentations to the various monitoring missions, I called this the “Nairobi digital highway traffic jam.” At some point, thousands of digital packets of information simply clogged the system. Over the evening, it became clear that thousands of polling stations, party agents, civil society and other users overwhelmed the cellular systems and the IEBC’s backend systems, which were supposed to absorb all this incoming data. 

One tablet was used for two different key technological solutions implemented by the IEBC for this election. First, was the biometric voter identification component, which was linked to the national voter registry, and that process worked well. Next, the tablets were to transmit provisional results from each polling station. From the beginning, I feared this process was problematic. First, it depended on reliable service by the cellular carriers. Two-thirds of Kenya is covered by one of three carriers, but lack of coverage is a regular source of complaints. Second, it depended on adequate server capacity to receive all this incoming data. Third, the court had ruled that the results from the polling station were considered final results, which meant any clerical error or malfeasance would not be reviewed prior to being accepted at the National Tally Center. In past elections, vote totals had been manipulated as returns moved through the levels of consolidation. 

Technology selections of hardware, software and service are always challenging for election commissions. Sometimes the issue is identifying past problem that need to be addressed and then building a specific solution for that problem. In 2017, the IEBC faced several challenges. Procurement decisions were postponed until January, when new commissioners were sworn in. Losing vendors challenged the IEBC’s selection decisions in court. Political parties also contested selections in court or the media by alleging corruption. One result was a sole source selection of Safran, a provider of equipment for the last election. While the equipment arrived in time for some testing and training, it became clear on election night that the integrated solution involving multiple applications from different suppliers had some glitches, which were preventing the returns from being received and displayed. (For more on the procurement challenges facing the IEBC, please see “What major challenges has the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission encountered regarding procurements of electoral materials?” in IFES’ FAQs). 

Over the rest of election night and into the Wednesday morning, the IEBC made the decision to continue to post whatever results made it through the system. There was a series of meetings and debate on this issue, which consumed a huge amount of time. There was also a constant push by vendors to solve the problems so the provisional results could be posted. Vendors in this space are almost always suspect. There is a culture clash between private sector profit motive and public servants trying to solve a problem and serve the public good within a usually restrained budget and timeframe. 

Despite these technology challenges, international observation missions have expressed confidence in the electoral process. "Candidates and their supporters must accept that not winning is a natural part of a democratic competition," European Union observer mission head Marietje Schaake said, adding, "Any irregularities or challenges to the process and outcomes should be addressed through petitions and the courts." We all hope that parties, candidates, and citizens remain peaceful in their rhetoric and actions in the coming days as the results are finalized. 

For more on these elections, see IFES’ FAQs on Elections in Kenya.

For more from Sweeney, please follow his Twitter account.

For more on IFES’ work in Kenya, please click here.