People on WhatsApp and Facebook, probably on Twitter too, have been laughing their hearts out since yesterday. This is because some crazy guy came up with a crazy idea that people should vote via MPESA – an idea that is not crazy at all. The statement that people should vote via MPESA has since been attributed to Zimbabwe’s President the aging Robert Mugabe but you and me both know that Mugabe had nothing to do with the statement.
My friend and fellow author Fredrick Ombako took up the discussion on his Facebook where he asked, “There’s some copy-pasted message doing rounds on social media (and the plagiarists and owning it!) that since MPESA has 25 million registered users while IEBC has just about 15 million, we should vote via MPESA. Well, it’s supposed to be funny but it isn’t. What’s wrong with this logic?”
The logic that most of Ombako’s friends provided as to why to vote via MPESA is impossible was that the idea is totally impractical.
For example one of Ombako’s friends responded, “The logic is some of these M-Pesa accounts are registered as business entities,therefore making it impossible to vote”.
Another friend commented, “One subscriber may have 6 lines registered under his/her name. We dont trust Safaricom more than IEBC”.
A more considerate commenter had this to say, “It is a bad joke…but there is something of value in it. I think the point is that we need to start thinking outside the box with regard to our voting system rather than this straight jacket thinking of queuing to register annually then queuing to vote every five years. With the current advancements in technology, we can get more people to vote more conveniently than this system we have.”
I also commented by saying, “This can work, but only after IEBC in liaison with political parties have verified the phone numbers against National ID numbers and validate the numbers that can be used to vote.”
The question therefore still remains, can we practically vote via MPESA? The only two issues that have been pointed out by those who think that this can’t work are 1.trust and 2. multiple MPESA ownership. It is clear that if Parliament and the entire Government took this issue seriously and brought up an amendment to the election laws that would allow Kenyans to vote via MPESA, then these two challenges would be very easy to iron out.
The trust issue can easily be dealt with by allowing the IEBC in liaison with all political parties to put up a system that takes over the MPESA voting platform. The MPESA voting platform thus will have to be detached from the main MPESA financial services. Then, to ensure that no matter how many MPESA lines one user owns, the person who intends to vote via MPESA will need to register only one mobile line (whether Safaricom, Airtel, Equitel or Orange) against one ID number in the new MPESA voting platform in order to vote.
There is one more challenge that people don’t seem to remember – the traffic issue. Today there are approximately 19 million individual subscribers on MPESA platform. A very small fraction of these people usually use MPESA at any given moment, but when all of them are required to use the same platform within a limited number of hours e.g. 12 hours to vote, then the question of whether MPESA can handle the upsurge of traffic must be answered.
After MPESA was brought to Kenya towards the end of last year, we were informed that MPESA can now handle up to 900 transactions per second. By this, we calculate that in one hour, MPESA should safely handle up to 3.24 million transactions. If we continue to think linearly, then we may be forgiven to conclude that the entire MPESA subscribers should be able to vote within the first six hours. But, what will happen when all of them decide to vote in the first three hours? That would mean that the system will be overloaded by a factor of two, meaning those who were unable to vote in the first three hours will continue attempting doing so every second or minute, and as they continue to attempt voting every single second or minute for the next foreseeable future, the system will remain overloaded – and it in a matter of time the system might crash.
How should the possibility of an overloaded system be handled? By implementing a system that can ensure that no more than 50,000 people attempt to vote every minute through decentralizing the servers to let’s say the county levels.
Or we could just vote via MPESA lookalike
From financial perspective, and given that the voting processes cannot and should not be privatized, we cannot in our right minds think that people can vote via MPESA – I mean, we can’t vote via the actual Vodafone owned MPESA platform; but that doesn’t’ mean we cannot vote via MPESA lookalike. In the article Minimum legal and technological changes that can ensure a free and fair 2017 General Elections in Kenya, I reiterated that only a 100% technologically oriented electoral process can guarantee us a free and fair 2017 General Elections.
If my memory serves me right, there were young Kenyans who presented an MPESA like System that could be used during General Election in one of the App Challenges like the Safaricom Appwiz Challenge. If and when I get my hands on the details of the App, I will update this article accordingly. In the meantime, as we reported exactly one year ago, a team of British and American researchers developed a foolproof online voting system that cannot be hacked called Du-Vote. A system that borrows from the Du-Vote system and merges with an MPESA like platform can practically be used as a voting system in the forthcoming general elections.
How will we deal with those without mobile phones?
If we actually come up with the requirement that in Kenya people can only vote via MPESA or an MPESA like system, what will happen to the thousands who still do not have access to mobile phones but have the right to vote? The solution like asking them to present themselves to voting centers can work but since to vote they will not only be required to register their IDs but also a certain mobile number that will be associated with the ID, a more robust approach will be needed.
I guess to these people then the voting centers may be turned to SIM registration centers. After they have been registered as mobile subscribers and consequently as MPESA users (or MPESA lookalike users), they will be given mobile phones from where they will be able to vote, after which remove their SIM cards from the phone and head back home. When such people without access to mobile phones are also illiterate, then they will be required to be accompanied by trusted friends or relatives who can assist them in the voting process.
Although by and large the mobile phone based voting system should work, my question at this point is, according to my imagination to vote via MPESA we will require MPESA to be able to present not only the names of the candidates vying for a particular seat but also their faces and party logos which smartphones should be able to handle, how will the over 15 millions Kenyans who use feature phones with monochromatic screens be able to choose their candidates without being able to see faces and logos?
Note, writing in The Standard, Veronica Onjoro earlier this month had proposed that we should adopt an MPESA like voting system for our general and other elections.