IEC should use mobile technology to avoid running out of ballot papers

Helen Zille and the Democratic Alliance have been quite critical of the Independent Electoral Commission’s managing the distribution of election materials such as ballot papers and boxes, and with good reason, I think.

Rather than succumbing to the possible knee-jerk reaction of preventing voters in future elections from voting at any voting station, the reason the IEC gave for the difficulties it experienced, the IEC should make better use of mobile technology to manage the distribution of materials on election day.

My initial thought was that it could be as simple as presiding officers SMSing the total number of voters through the voting station to a short code every hour. This would be captured into a database which already has the number of voters registered at that station and the number of ballot papers provided to it. It would then be easy to have a number of calculated fields in the database to generate the difference between voters through the station and the number of ballots available, as well as the rate of voting in that station. From those two fields, a third calculated field could project how much time it will take for the voting station to run out of ballot papers.

A red flag could then be set on this field to send a warning to the regional IEC management centre as soon as the projected time left dropped below two hours. This would then provide enough time for fresh supplies to be delivered long before the voting station actually ran out.

On reflection, I’m not sure the cell phones are even necessary, except perhaps as a back up. The ID scanners used at voting stations already communicate with a central database of registered voters, and it would be a relatively simple matter to update the database with where each voter votes in real time. And from those updates, the number of voters through each voting station, the rate of voters through the station, and the number of section 24 voters (those voting at a voting station other than where they are registered) could be monitored in real time.

It’s all about harnessing technology to provide an early warning system.


4 Responses to “IEC should use mobile technology to avoid running out of ballot papers”

  1. 1 Twylite 24 April 2009 at 4:45 pm

    This is an excellent example of where technology is NOT the answer, and people are.

    A central database can tell you the proportion of ballot papers left. If you compute some detailed statistics for each polling station you can determine the historical rate of voting. What you cannot determine is the current length of the queue or the expected future voting rate. That information is only available from a human on the scene.

    Using a low-watermark on remaining ballot papers is a terribly strategy — towards the end of the day all 1000+ stations in the province will near that watermark, and the rate of false positives undermines the system.

    Using the historical rate of voting is also a poor strategy — A high voter rate early in the day could as easily indicate that few more ballots will be required, as that many more will be required.

    It is also essential that the power and responsibility of the presiding officer is not usurped by automation. If an automatically-dispatched courier arrives at a polling station with extra ballots the presiding officer may well refuse to accept them ((s)he is accountable for the ballot papers if they are accepted), and you now have ballot papers checked out from the secure depot but not accepted at the destination — BAD.

    The IEC did have additional ballot papers on Wednesday, and it did distribute them to the polling stations where they were required. The only problem appears to be that presiding officers at some stations did not notice or act on the impending shortage in time, which indicates that additional training is required next time.

    • 2 Twylite 24 April 2009 at 5:11 pm

      Here’s an example worth noting: according to the voting district statistics available from (update 2009/04/29 at 16:36), there were 271 voting stations in KZN where more votes were cast than there were registered voters. 37 stations had over 50% more voters than expected, of which 8 had more than double the expected number of voters.

      On a national level one expects 9 times those figures, or around 2440 polling stations that received more voters than expected.

      The DA complained that 24 polling stations run out of ballot papers for a while. The other 99% didn’t.

      • 3 ahazell 28 April 2009 at 3:49 pm

        If you want to know why 24 polling stations in high DA support areas makes a difference, here’s an example:

        In the Free State, Cope got 0.01%, or 174 votes, more than the DA. In calculating the seat allocation, the DA got three seats in the provincial legislature; Cope got four. It came down to the smallest fraction.

        I am pretty sure that at least 175 people gave up waiting for ballot papers at those stations in the Free State that ran out. While the absolute number of voters affected was small, the effect was one seat in the legislature (and the official opposition).

    • 4 ahazell 28 April 2009 at 11:38 am

      I am not arguing for the complete removal of human intervention, just for it to be backed up by the use of technology. Relying entirely on the human factor clearly isn’t ideal, especially when 19725 presiding officers are involved across the country, otherwise there wouldn’t have been polling stations running out of ballot papers. If a regional IEC command centre gets a warning that, based on current voting rates, voting station A will run out of ballot papers in two hours time, that command centre can then call the presiding officer to get more details on queues etc. and make a judgment call on the delivery of more materials. The point is to get the early warning system.

      Another point is that voting actually takes a fairly consistent shape over an Election Day, and there is plenty of data on voter turnout and voting patters, so basing projections on historical voting rates is quite easily and fairly accurately done.

      It was also fairly easy to predict that certain voting stations in KwaZulu-Natal (and other coastal provinces for that matter) would get more section 24 votes. Election Day fell in the middle of private school holidays, and a number of people take leave over this period to make good use of public holidays.

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