BLANTYRE - An election governing body in Malawi has done its first test of a system that tallies election results, as a May 21 poll draws near. Testing of the Results Management System is meant to find weaknesses and glitches, as officials hope Tuesday's exercise will help calm fears of election rigging.
Officials placed staff and equipment at election centers across Malawi to transmit results to the main tally center in Blantyre.
Jane Ansah, chairperson for the Malawi Electoral Commission, says the test exercise is meant to calm fears that election results might be tampered with.
“This is one of the issues of transparency. We invited people to come and witness this test run, and I believe, as they witness the test run, they will be assured that there is no reason or any basis for any fears of hacking the system,” Ansah said.
However, the test did uncover network glitches in the Results Management System, especially at voting centers in rural areas.
The test exercise began nearly an hour late because of connectivity problems. Some tallying centers in southern Malawi — like Nsanje district — failed to transmit results to the main tally center.
Kenneth Phiri, who represented the main opposition Malawi Congress Party during the exercise, expressed satisfaction with how the system was working, but noted concerns about connectivity issues.
“We will have challenges like maybe when sending information from remote areas. Obviously, phones will be off or network problems. So instead of relying on scanning documents, we should have [another] way of sending that from polling station to the main tally center,” Phiri said.
Election official Ansah vowed that the glitches found during the test run will be fixed by the time voters go to the polls May 21.
“Apart from that, the system is still paper-based. So it’s not only that [electronic document] which is transmitted but we have a fallback position because our ballots are paper. So, we believe that since the representatives of political parties are here, they will be able to relay the information to their principals and people fears of rigging will be allayed,” Ansah said.
Incumbent President Peter Mutharika is seeking a second term, and his own vice president, Saulos Klaus Chilima, is seeking to unseat Mutharika. During the campaign, both men have been accusing each other of planning to rig the elections.
Mutharika claims Chilima is conniving with local telecommunication companies, a charge Chilima denies.
Meanwhile, the vice president has accused Mutharika's government of buying a machine it allegedly plans to use to rig the upcoming poll, a claim the president has denied.
Richard Cox, chief technical adviser for electoral support with the United Nations Development Program, told VOA that politicians themselves can generate fears about election rigging.
“What we say is where there are genuine, provable concerns on electoral fraud, we should use institutions and processes that are already in place to address those. But where the accusation is not grounded in a reality or proven reality, please be cautious because what you are doing is you are disenfranchising the electorate by doing that,” he said.
Cox said the Results Management System tested in Malawi has been used in other countries in Africa, like Zambia.
“There was no issue in which the tally sheets were [fraudulently] scanned and transmitted. So we are confident that the system should yield results in terms of reliability, efficiency and security that should inspire some confidence,” Cox said.
The election commission plans another more targeted test run at sites that experienced problems before voters head to the polls.