The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) has argued in court that it is within its rights to refuse to issue electronic copies of the voters’ roll claiming recipients can tamper with them.
This comes after a local independent watchdog, Project Vote 263, took the electoral commission to the High Court for refusing to issue them with a soft copy of the roll.
Project Vote 263 contended that it was their decision whether to have a hard or soft copy and that ZEC’s refusal precluded them from participating in election processes because a voters’ roll is a constitutional requirement.
The watchdog argued that Section 21 (3) of the Electoral Act obliges ZEC to offer a soft copy and was unreasonable for them to offer a hard copy, which is quite expensive and voluminous.
Section 21(3) states “the Commission shall within a reasonable period of time provide any person who requests it, and who pays the prescribed fee, with a copy of any ward or constituency voters roll, either in printed or in electronic form as the person may request.”
In their notice of opposition to Project Vote 263’s founding affidavit, ZEC, through its Chief Elections Officer, Utloile Silaigwana, said the request for the soft copy, using Section 21 (3) of the Electoral Act (Chapter 2:13) by the applicant, was incorrect.
“That subsection of the Electoral Act, contrary to the averred position by the Applicant, does not give rise to the absolute rights and immutable obligations expressed by the Applicant’s deponent,” read ZEC’s opposing affidavit
Silaigwana stated that where a voters’ roll is to be furnished in electronic form in terms of, inter alia, Section 21(3), the roll may be formatted so as to prevent it from being altered or otherwise tampered with, and the Respondent can impose reasonable conditions on the provision of the roll to discourage it from being used for commercial or other purposes unrelated to an election.
According to the Electoral Act Section 21(7) –”Where a voters roll is provided in electronic form in terms of subsection (3), (4) or (6), its format shall be such as allows its contents to be searched and analysed: Provided that-
(i) the roll may be formatted so as to prevent its being altered or otherwise tampered with;
(ii) the Commission may impose reasonable conditions on the provision of the roll to prevent it from being used for commercial or other purposes unconnected with an election.”
These “reasonable conditions,” as emphasized by ZEC, do not imply a refusal to provide a soft copy of the voters’ roll, as the electoral commission is required to ensure that the copy of the voters’ roll is in such a format.
According to ZEC’s statement, the commission has concerns and must employ Section 21(7) to address them.
“The effect of Section 21(7) is to expand the mandate of the respondent under section 20 of the electoral act that is the mandate to keep and maintain voters roll, to include a mandate to ensure that those rolls that are kept and maintained in electronic form are I a form that does not permit alteration of any form of tampering and to formulate conditions that prevent the misuse of the voters roll. These are all legitimate and legislated obligations of the respondent,” said ZEC.
To demonstrate its concerns, ZEC cites breaches by an online team of data analysts known as Team Pachedu, which exposed a number of anomalies in the voters’ roll, warning that they could lead to another disputed election in 2023.
ZEC also cites the Cyber and Data Protection Act (Chapter 12:07) in supporting its decision not to release the voters roll, claiming provisions of Sections 13 and 18 of same act impose obligations upon the commission, “as a repository of millions of Zimbabweans personal data and information, to ensure that the data is protected from negligent or unauthorised destruction, negligent loss unauthorised alteration or access and any other unauthorised processing of the data.”
However regional framework on elections and data protection, for instance the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights guidelines on access to information and elections in Africa says, “the voters’ roll must be provided with the necessary details, such as full name, identity number, photograph (where it exists), gender and age of each voter and any subsequent amendments to this information.
Last year in November, ZEC charged US$187 000 for a hard copy of the voters’ roll after the Election Resource Centre (ERC), an independent election watchdog, gave the commission seven-day ultimatum to release the document.-Cite.org.zw