Current Affairs

Current Affairs




Fingerprint pilot for parish council vote
40 machines to be used
DAVID PAULIN, Observer writer
Thursday, November 07, 2002



Jamaicans, in a handful of parish council divisions, will vote with hi-tech devices that identify their fingerprints in upcoming local government elections as officials begin to put to the test another of the systems they hope will help to eradicate "bribery and intimidation" and lead to cleaner elections here.

The hi-tech system, together with improved training and other enhancements, will help ensure that future elections are as peaceful and fair as the October 16 general election, according to director of elections, Danville Walker, speaking yesterday at a meeting of the Lions Club of Kingston at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel.

"We set a good standard to work and build on, but we have a lot more work to do," Walker said.

A year ago the Electoral Advisory Committee (EAC) named the US technology company, Cogent Inc, as its preferred bidder to develop Jamaica's proposed computerised voting system in which an elector's fingerprint would be matched from the existing database before the automatic delivery of ballots.

Cogent, another American firm TRW Inc, and the French firm, Sagem, in March last year competed to provide the system, based on configurations for which the EAC holds a US patent, and displayed their fingerprinting matching capabilities at demonstrations in Kingston.

Cogent has since been fine-tuning and integrating the systems and will in the local government elections, to be held by the end of next March, deploy 40 machines as part of the pilot. These machines would, on the face of it, cover less than one per cent of the more than 5,000 voting stations that were in place for last month's general elections.

Officials have not yet decided where the machines will be deployed, Walker said.

Based on the estimates of a year ago, if the pilot proves successful, Cogent could possibly get a contract worth US$16 million to develop a full-blown electronic system for islandwide voter identification. Its initial contract, to simulate the process and fine-tune the technology and determine whether it was likely to work in an actual election, was estimated at just under US$500,000.

Jamaica, as part of its effort to eliminate voter fraud, began its move towards technology in the mid- 1990s when it hired TRW Inc to develop a computer-based voter registration that involved fingerprinting potential and cross-matching those prints to ensure a cleaner voters' list.

A slew of legislation has also been passed to give election officials greater powers to halt or void voting in the event of fraud and intimidation.

Walker was widely praised for last month's elections which local and international election observers said were fair and relatively free of violence.

Walker, however, said: "We cannot afford to rest on our laurels."

He warned that too many people remain intent on subverting the election process. Having been thwarted by increasingly sophisticated and better-organised election machinery, he said, they could turn to violence to achieve their ends.

Election-related violence has been on a sharp decline in Jamaica, ever since more than 800 people died in the run-up to the October 1980 general elections.

In subsequent years, a handful of deaths have been attributed to election-related violence.

In future elections, though, "intimidation will probably play a larger role and bribery will probably play a larger role", Walker said.

"They want to win at any cost. What we have to do is to make the cost so high that it will not be worth it," he said.

Election authorities would guard against such tactics, which are most likely to be used in the run-up to elections -- part of an effort to scare voters away from the polls, Walker said.

Better trained election workers and the utilisation of more sophisticated voting machinery -- including the fingerprinting technology -- are among ongoing improvements being eyed for future elections, he said.

Referring to last month's election success, Walker praised the recruitment of civic-minded election workers and election-day observers associated with CAFFE, the local election watchdog.

He also mentioned a better-organised election process.

"Nobody runs way with ballot boxes anymore," he said.

Next week, officials will issue decisions on complaints made by 10 candidates about alleged voting irregularities, Walker said. They included election-related violence and ballot boxes that were supposedly stuffed, he said.