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  • Jaime González Gasque

Biometrics to the rescue: helping democracies to build elections that can be trusted


Data shows that the number of democracies in the world is shrinking. Many countries are struggling on a precarious path between democracy and autocracy, while in long-established Western democracies fears over the denial of election results are becoming more and more frequent. Building trusted elections takes a number of firm political and social actions. But in many cases, biometric technology can be a big step forward in helping to secure more credible and reliable voting processes.


Data shows that the number of democracies in the world is shrinking. Many countries are struggling on a precarious path between democracy and autocracy, while in long-established Western democracies fears over the denial of election results are becoming more and more frequent. Building trusted elections takes a number of firm political and social actions. But in many cases, biometric technology can be a big step forward in helping to secure more credible and reliable voting processes.


The majority of the world’s countries are democracies, and billions of people enjoy basic democratic rights: the right to vote, for example, or the freedom of speech and opinion. Undoubtedly, democracy represents a great success for humanity. But if we look back at the world as little as 200 years ago – when French revolutionaries had just stormed the Bastille crying for liberty, equality and fraternity – things were quite different. Modern democratic regimes as we know them today were still in their infancy, with pretty much the entire world’s population lacking democratic rights.

How many democratic countries are there?


There is no straightforward way to define what constitutes as a democracy and count the actual number of democratic countries in the world. However, Our World in Data – a project supervised by the University of Oxford – assesses that, based on academic classifications, in 2021 around 60% of the world’s countries were democracies.

Source: Our World in Data. Retrieved in November 2022.

Is the world becoming less democratic?


If you conclude that we live on a (mostly) democratic planet, unfortunately, you are wrong. In reality, the total number of people who are not granted democratic rights is higher than ever – simply because the world’s population grows faster than democracy spreads. The paths of democracy are complex and discontinuous. Tunisia, for example, became a democratic country in 2012, and has been widely considered to be the only successful democratic model that emerged from the Arab Spring – the wave of pro-democracy protests that took place in the Middle East and North Africa in the 2010s. Yet, now in 2022, the endless power struggle between the country’s president and its parliament has put Tunisia’s democracy under serious pressure.


“Today, the total number of people who are not granted democratic rights is higher than ever – simply because the world’s population grows faster than democracy spreads.“


India is the largest democracy in the world with a population of nearly 1.4 billion people. Given its size, the democratisation of the country in the 1950s brought civil rights to a large share of the world’s population. However, in 2019, the V-Dem Institute – an independent research institute based in Sweden – classified India as an “electoral autocracy”. And now many observers are wondering what the future of democracy in India will be. 


And even in countries with long-established democratic institutions, internal forces have begun exploiting the shortcomings of the system, putting democracy itself at stake. In the United States, following Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 presidential election, the then-incumbent Donald Trump promoted numerous false claims asserting that the presidency was stolen from him through rigged voting machines and electoral fraud. His efforts to overturn the 2020 elections culminated in what is now considered the darkest day for democracy in USA: the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. 


The suspicion that parties would deny electoral results has also overshadowed the latest elections to take place in 2022: the presidential elections in Brazil and the midterm elections in the United States. So as we look into the future, democracy does not look universal and inevitable. It instead is looking like a fragile conquest to be nurtured and protected.

Many things make a country a democracy – among which are trusted elections.


Every democracy is unique and works in different ways. Every democratic country’s political system relies on processes that have been built by its own people over decades or even centuries. Yet, at the core of every democracy there is one immutable fact: that the people participate in the decision-making. This can be done directly in what is called a direct democracy or, more commonly, through elections where the people choose representatives to make decisions on their behalf.


“Trusted elections are the bedrock of any other democratic process. If citizens do not trust the electoral process, they probably won’t trust anything else coming from the government.”


Trusted elections are the bedrock of any other democratic process. If citizens do not trust the electoral process, they probably won’t trust anything else coming from the government. Increasingly frequent disputes over the acceptance of election results and claims of voter fraud suggest that trust is at the core of democracy. This means that elections don’t only need to be fair and equal; they also need to be perceived as being trustworthy by the public. It is a tough challenge in which all democracies – from the youngest to the most established – seem now to be involved. So can technology help out?


Why are voter registers so important?


Voter registration is one of the most sensitive, and at the same time most contested, aspects of elections. Flawed electoral rolls – with duplicate, outdated or missing names – open up the possibility of manipulation, and undermine the trust citizens have in the entire democratic election process. This flaw can not only be used by political parties to attack and cast doubt on the results, but the failure to correctly register voters can also genuinely deprive many citizens of their right to vote, impacting the true fairness of the result. 


To be a solid democracy it is therefore essential to have solid voter registration processes.

When biometrics has helped. Building more reliable voter registers in Bangladesh.


Building trusted elections is a long-term political and social process that doesn’t happen overnight. But sometimes technology can provide a helping hand. 


At the beginning of this century, many countries around the world started to rely on biometrics to compile solid voter registers. This aided governments in overcoming political crises or consolidating fresh democratic institutions, and in other cases it simply made the voting process faster.


One such example comes from Bangladesh – It was 2007, and the parliamentary elections had just been postponed. The decision came after weeks of mounting political violence. An alliance of parties had in fact promised to boycott the elections, with one of the primary reasons being the poor quality of the voter rolls. The list contained over 14 million errors and fake names, which is an extraordinary number given the country had around 80 million voters in total at the time. Pushed by political pressure demanding more trustful elections, the electoral commission decided to use biometrics to compile new and more consistent voter registers. Biometric Voter Registration – often called BVR – is indeed one of the most common uses of biometrics in elections. Biometric data for each eligible voter is captured using biometric registration kits, and stored in the registers together with other biographical and personal information. This makes it easier to detect duplicate names and keep registers clean and consistent.


What data is collected through Biometric Voter Registration?


Some countries collect only photos (India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example) while others only collect fingerprint scans. Many countries collect both, such as Mexico, Nigeria and Mozambique. Brazil goes even further by also collecting signatures.


The time was momentous. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) partnered with the Electoral Commission in Bangladesh to secure the necessary resources for the ambitious project. Over 1,000 webcams and fingerprint scanners were distributed across the country, and in just 11 months the commission registered 80.5 million voters. It was a success.


The following year, in December 2008, Bangladesh’s postponed parliamentary election was held. Observers from the International Republican Institute – a non-profit US-based organisation working on the advancement of democracy worldwide – assessed that it was the “best election in the country’s history”.


“Observers from the International Republican Institute assessed that the Bangladeshi election based on Biometric Voter Registration was the ‘best election in the country’s history’.”


Biometric voter identification in Ghana led to the highest turnout in history


As seen in Bangladesh, biometric technology can help resolve an acute political crisis by securing voter registration in an accurate and trusted manner. Many other countries are starting to rely on biometrics to compile electoral rolls – especially in countries where citizens do not have reliable identification documents, or population registers are poorly made and not trusted enough to extract voter information.


Biometrics can also be adopted during election day to identify voters at the polling stations, thus avoiding fraud, identity theft and multiple voting. Ghana, for example, decided to use biometrics in its 2020 election in order to both compile voter registers and to identify the voters on the day.

How many countries adopt biometrics in elections?


According to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), 33% of 177 surveyed countries capture biometric data as part of their voter registration process, while 30% use biometric information to identify voters at polling stations.


Usually, biometric voter identification involves manual verification, such as a poll worker checking a voter’s appearance against a photograph on a voter list. Only 9% of the surveyed countries use an electronic biometric identification system, in which a computer verifies the identity of the voter.



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