Updated August 20 at 1:06 p.m. EDT.
Emerging from a climate of “distrust and instability,” some five million Malawians went to vote in that country’s tripartite general elections in May, marking the first time the electorate would vote for local government, members of parliament and a president all at once.
Another first when the polls opened was an initiative aimed at getting the voting public to the ballot box informed, verified and ready to vote, using the website GotToVote! Malawi.
“People in Malawi vote, but experience problems afterwards because they've voted in the wrong area, or registered in an area that was not their own,” said Steven Perete, a member of the local project team. He explained the challenge of voter verification: “In order to verify voter registration, people had to travel to the [same] place they had registered to check that they are on the system.” This was a time-consuming and wasteful effort for people preoccupied with making a living.
In partnerships with the Malawi Electoral Commission, GotToVote! Malawi explains who is eligible to register and gives an overview of the voter registration process. The initiative received assistance from Code for Africa, Hivos International, the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa and a consortium of Malawian civic organizations.
“Another issue was that candidate lists were available online, but in PDF format,” he said. He noted that Internet penetration in Malawi is only about 2 percent, while mobile penetration is just under 20 percent.
In June 2013, Perete participated in the Malawi Data Bootcamp. There, he met David Lemayian, the lead technologist for Code for Africa. The event, organized by the African Media Initiative and The World Bank Institute, which includes The World Bank Group's Global Media Development program, was aimed at quickly realizing democracy hacks to empower journalists, civic organizations and the public they mutually serve.
At the time of the pair’s meeting, Lemayian had already successfully implemented GotToVote!Kenya (2012), and smaller offshoots in Ghana and South Africa. In 2013, thousands of voters used GotToVote!Zimbabwe in the run-up to that country’s elections. (The initial version had sprung from a Code for Kenya experiment to try revolutionize the way that African journalists and civic activists use data. It was launched by the African Media Initiative (AMI) and the World Bank under the leadership of ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow Justin Arenstein.)
““The fact that the Malawi Electoral Commission could take a tool built by a newsroom and adapt it to help run an election for an entire country, for a few thousand dollars, is a demonstration of just how powerful data-driven applications can be in the developing world,” Lemayian said.
The result? GotToVote! Malawi helped nearly 300,000 citizens verify their voter status ahead of the election. By using the system, another 46,000 Malawians discovered they had either not yet registered or had issues with registration details. The MEC also credited the initiative during an Al Jazeera interview with helping to make the voting process easier for the rural electorate.
The 2014 Malawi elections weren't perfect or without incident. The outcome of the presidential election was contested, and the election results delayed, but "international election observers declared the polls to be generally free and fair," the BBC reported. (Peter Mutharika, leader of Malawi's Democratic Progressive Party, was declared the winner.)
In the future, millions of voters who participate in future elections will be able to use their mobile phones to verify voter registration, and will be able to get electoral data directly.
Open data tool engages voters in Zimbabwe elections IJNet
Voter registration verification goes electronic The Malawian
Data journalism boosts voter registration in Kenya IJNet
Image courtesy of Flickr user Kodak Agfa under a Creative Commons license.