Sophisticated technology and refined rigging in Uganda’s 2011 presidential election

Version available here too.

This is the old man with a hat, THANK U for voting for me & the NRM. Let’s work together for a better Uganda. Congratulations on the NRM victory.”

This short message service (SMS) was sent by ”YKMuseveni” to millions of Ugandan mobile users the week after the presidential election in February 2011. The SMS more or less tells the whole story. Not only does it tell us that the long lasting President Museveni usually wears a hat; it also states that the 25-year rule is set to continue for another 5 years and the SMS also indicates that those in power have understood the value in using new technologies to campaign and reach the masses.

Rap and robocalls
The ruling party National Resistance Movement (NRM) used all technical means available to convince voters to cast their votes on them. It all started when Museveni, during a speech in 2010, started to rap. It was recorded, remixed and given a beat with back up vocals. A music video was produced and uploaded on YouTube. Rest is history: the song became viral, spread as a ringtone and via Facebook, and functioned as NRM’s anthem during the whole campaign.

Mass SMS broadcasts were widely deployed by all major candidates and parties and some had also  developed interactive websites and social network functions to communicate with voters. NRM might have had the highest budget for this and presented the most advanced approach with a website and a SMS subscription service where registered users could receive updates regarding rallies and debates. The NRM secretariat had set up a toll free call centre for queries, a social networking site and a Museveni Fan Page on Facebook with thousand’s of “likes”. A week before the presidential election, people’s phones started to ring. Using an automated “robocall” system (Voice over Internet Protocol, VoIP) the President delivered a pre-recorded message telling voters: “Hullo, I greet you. Thank you for your support. As you go to vote, please vote for Museveni, the man in a hat.

Voter registration, election monitoring and parallel vote tabulations
Information and communication technology (ICT) was not only used in campaigns, it was used extensively throughout the election cycle. The Electoral Commission made it possible for anyone to check the details of the register down to parish level via the web. Registered voters could also check their details via SMS by sending their voter identity number to the dedicated short code 8683.

During election day, the traditional media did an achievable work in reporting from all over the country. However, Facebook and especially Twitter (#ugandavotes) was undoubtedly the best source for instant (although unverified) information.

Ushahidi has become a well known crowdsourcing crisis information tool. It makes it possible for citizens to report incidents via SMS, mail, twitter and other channels depending on configuration, and plot these on an online map. In Uganda, the organisation Citizen Election Watch – IT (CEW-IT) set up a customised version of the Ushahidi platform called Uchaguzi, which was used to monitor incidences of electoral offences. However, another organisation called DEMGroup, a coalition of four civil society organisations, had developed yet another platform (Ugandawatch2011) built on top of Drupal.

The two organisations CEW-IT and DEMGroup made an agreement so that all the messages sent from the crowd was sourced into Ugandawatch2011. In total, more than 10’000 messages was sent via SMS to 6090, reporting on various issues such as voter buying, registration hiccups, inappropriate campaign conduct, cases of violence or just general complaints of positive feedback.

The Electoral Commission are the only ones authorised to announce the official polling results. Historically, a lot of the rigging takes place in voting process, i.e. when counting the votes and submitting the results to the headquarters for recount. As a response to this, the Electoral Commission launched a system for communicating and handling the results from the almost 24’000 polling stations nationwide. Using a much lower budget, the open source project Mulika set up their own system that allowed any citizen to report election results at their polling station at the end of voting. The aggregated results were than accessible via The basic idea behind the initiative was to make rigging at counting nearly impossible as the results officially declared then would have been already known by the public. However, only data from 104 polling stations out of almost 24’000 was submitted to Mulika.

DEMGroup, with technical assistance from the American organisation National Democratic Institute (NDI), had a more rigorous approach and had mobilised almost 6’000 nonpartisan citizen election monitors countrywide. Using SMS to gather data from the monitors, the parallel vote tabulations provided an independent vote count as a check on the Electoral Commission.

All good or…
There is no doubt that ICT played a key role in Uganda’s 2011 elections. Hopefully it helped voters to be more informed about the process, candidates and issues than during previous elections. No doubt the digital version of the register was cleaner than any other version publicly available before. And it seems like the counting of votes and display of election results accurately represented the ballots cast, partly thanks to CEW-IT, DEMGroup and NDI’s efforts.

So was the election free and fair? Not exactly, the elections were rather very expensive and rigged. Not only were new boundaries and new districts set up since last election to favour NRM. State resources were used to campaign and there are several alleged cases of bribery of voters and voter buying. How could NRM (and other parties too) control bribed voters? Firstly, design the ballot paper so that there is a distance and easy to differentiate between the two main rivals (the portrait of Museveni wearing a hat appeared at the bottom on the ballot paper and the main opposition leader second from the top). Secondly, place the plastic basin where voters tick their candidate low so that it is impossible to do it secretly and can easily be observed from a distance.

By putting the register online, citizens could scrutinise and alert the Electoral Commission cases of deceased, under age or ghost voters. However, it seems like the register used during election day was not identical with the digital one. Many voters were missing on voter register, others were in different polling stations, others had names but no photographs or the reverse and could therefore not vote. This partly explains the rather low voter turn out (below 60%). Another explanation to the low voter turnout is the heavy presence of military during election day which could have affected the results by discouraging opposition voters from voting.

So, despite all the innovative use of ICT mentioned above, the election outcome was just as expected. Technology is not the sole solution to all problems in the fight for deepened democracy and in running free and fair elections. The use of sophisticated technology did not stop the rigging, it only forced those in power to make it more refined.


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