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Politics & Economics

Libya’s Election Ushers in New Voter Technology

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By Marguerite Ward, World Policy Journal 

Libya’s parliamentary election today is employing the world’s first national, mobile voter registration system.

Today, voters headed to the polls to elect members to the 200-seat House of Representatives. The House of Representatives will replace the General National Congress, the now largely discredited interim parliament established in July 2012.

Ahead of the elections, Libyans used the country’s new mobile registration system. Since December 2013, a total of 1.5 million Libyan citizens registered to vote using the mobile system: citizens in Libya texting in their information via SMS and citizens abroad using an online form. In-person voter registration was still an option for those who required or requested it, but the large majority of voter registration was done virtually.

Libya’s High National Elections Commission (HNEC) spearheaded the project, acting under a 2012 mandate from the General National Congress, which requires virtually all voter registration be mobile. The HNEC worked with the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, the International Organization for Migration, a social impact firm called Reboot, and several other critical actorsto implement the system.

The system works as follows: Voters enter their 12-digit national identification number, a designated 5-digit electoral center code, and their information to an official number. For Libyan citizens abroad, the same process is completed online.

Instantly, voter registration information is sent to election officials. This data helps officials determine if more resources or even more voting booths are required in an area. The voter, at the same time, receives immediate confirmation via SMS and/or email.

Given the distance people would have to travel to election offices, as well as lingering security concerns, the mobile system offers a seemingly more inclusive option to registering.

The country has seen increasing violence and political tension, especially in recent months. Since the failed uprising-turned-civil war, Libyans have struggled to find concrete, democratic leadership. All evidence points to a delicate, but dangerous period of transition for Libya.

But this transitional period paves the way for a breath of new opportunities. The controversial Political Isolation Act, which prevents members of the Qaddafi regime from holding public office, passed in May 2013. While criticized for being vague and overreaching, it has ushered in a wave of leaders eager to embrace new democratic traditions.

It is perhaps this new transitional spirit that helps answer the question: Why create a mobile registration option in Libya now?

World Policy Journal spoke with Panthea Lee, the Principal and lead designer at Reboot, who was stationed in Tripoli for several months leading up to the June election.

“What is interesting about [Libya] is that it doesn’t bring a lot of the baggage, for lack of a better word, that other countries may bring in terms of ‘this is way our processes are done, we’ve had elections for along time’…so they can essentially leapfrog over how a lot of other actors are thinking about developing innovative processes and systems,” said Lee.

The system was created by a technology team of less than 20 people in under six months, and with a “small” budget, according to Reboot. The system used only open source technology.

“I think there’s often this narrative that to be able to design these systems on a national scale to deliver a public service, you require millions of dollars, lots of contractors….and that’s just not true” Lee said.

In light of the U.S.’s recent Healthcare.gov fiasco, Libya’s use of private and public resources to create a seamless product could prove an example for other governments.

In a country where technology was employed in bringing down an oppressive dictator, Libya’s government now seeks to harness the power of technology to advance inclusion and democracy.

“I think that this voter registration effort is something that is very fundamental to the democratic process. It can provide lessons for other agencies that deliver critical public services,” Lee said.

Reboot says that other countries have expressed interest in the mobile voter registration technology. In the drastically changing landscape of North Africa, could cellphone technology be the cornerstone of increased political participation?

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Marguerite Ward is the Online News Editor at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of United Nations Development ProgramWikimedia,Wikicommons, and Reboot]

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