IEBC Chairman Reflects on Kenya’s 2013 General Elections and Future

Publication Date: 
20 Jun 2013

Following the adoption of a new constitution that expanded citizen’s rights before the law, Kenya held general elections on March 4, 2013. Six polls were held simultaneously and three new technologies were implemented – biometric voter registration, electronic voter identification and a results transmission system.

Ahmed Issack Hassan, Chairman of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), talks to us about the historic election, his career and his hopes for Kenya.

How did you get into election management and how long have you worked in this field?

I have been in election management since 1992 and I am a lawyer by profession. While I was still a student at the University of Nairobi finishing my law degree, I applied to be a presiding officer in charge of our precinct polling station. That was my first experience with election management. Following that, I did election petitions as a lawyer for clients, but then in 2009, the position of Chairman of the Interim Independent Electoral Commission was advertised by Parliament. I applied, and the rest is history.

Why do elections matter?

Elections matter because they are a guarantee of democracy. It allows non-violent mechanisms to deal with competing political interests and ideologies. It allows for participation of the people in the command of the government. Elections are also intended to create a fair way of determining winners and losers; they are the core of democracy and fair governance in any country.

What would you describe as the greatest challenge in running the 2013 elections in Kenya? And what are some lessons learned?

Holding six elections on the same day under a new constitution was a big challenge. There were high expectations by the people of Kenya about the performance of the election commission and the use of technology in election management. There is an African proverb that says “never test the depth of a river with both feet.” We tested three new technologies in the general election with mixed reactions, some challenges and some failures.

How many polling stations were there across Kenya?

Let me give you all the numbers: we had 14.3 million registered voters; 900 members of staff full time in the commission; 240,000 temporary staff; 32,613 polling stations and 98,000 security personnel. It was a very complex operation and we only had 16 months to do all this. Unlike in the U.S. and other countries – where elections are managed by different bodies at local or state levels – in Kenya, all elections are managed by one body, the IEBC. So, you are looking at six different [levels of] elections all managed by the same body.

Tell us about the election technologies. How did you determine the need for them and what were the challenges in adopting them?

The first one was voter registration. We had to look for a technology that was going to give us a credible voter register; one that would not allow people to register twice or use the names of people who have died to vote during elections. We went for a biometric voter registration where you actually capture the biometric features of the voter—two fingerprints and the two thumbs. You capture their personal details, their ID number and then create the voter register. We used that technology and I think it worked very well, although the time was very short. We had 30 days to register 14.3 million people. I believe we still have to capture about 3 million Kenyans who are eligible to vote but did not have their voter’s card.

We also implemented electronic voter identification. When a voter walks into a polling station, he is identified through a fingerprint reader. The deployment of this equipment and the training of staff was a big challenge, and during the elections many of the machines failed. Only 40 percent worked in the general election. I think it is not the quality of the machines or the software, but rather the time, logistics and training.

The third technology was the electronic transmission of results; this was not meant to replace the paper results, those were still used. We introduced a system where, at every polling station, the presiding officer counts the ballot papers, declares the results, and then transmits the results by telephone. We were actually projecting the results on a big screen and people were watching. You could also log in online and follow the results. That was the main way to give people transparency, efficiency and allow people who lost to concede defeat before we announced the official results.

Tell us about your collaboration with IFES. When did you start working with IFES and how has IFES helped the commission?

I learned about IFES when I was appointed in May of 2009 to the interim electoral body. I went through the files of my predecessor, the Chairman of the former commission, the late Samuel Kivuitu, and saw IFES was mentioned in the report on how to transmit results using laptops or a telephone system. I picked up the file and I actually wrote IFES’ President and CEO and I said I liked the idea. [Since then, IFES has] really helped a lot in many areas and we are very grateful for that.

Now that the 2013 polls are over, what’s next for the IEBC?

We are now in the post-election phase, so we have to evaluate all our systems and processes and see what worked well, what didn’t work well, and how it can be fixed. And I am happy to say that IFES, with support of the United Nations Development Programme and the National Democratic Institute are helping us in that post-election evaluation.

We also have to review the laws. Some of the laws were passed by government very late in the general election. I think these are laws that need to be looked at and we need to look at whether it is viable and sustainable to have six general elections on the same day.

What has been the most meaningful experience of your career?

Public service is satisfying when you are given a position of responsibility, like the one I have now. Especially coming from my background, I think chairing this election commission; being able to lead a transition from post-election violence to a new dispensation; being able to declare a new constitution; and then, two years later, declare the President of Kenya – those are key milestones I can look at and say I was there; I did it.

What are your hopes for Kenya?

My hopes for Kenya are that we become a more mature democracy and a more open society where we enjoy the full freedoms that are now clearly listed in the bill of rights in the Constitution of Kenya – that the new constitution is fully implemented and all institutions are put in place. I hope we can see a country that truly allows its people to enjoy their full potential.