Want to Rid African Elections of Cheating ? Demand Better Opinion Polls

Antsirabe cathedral, MadagascarImage via Wikipedia
As mentioned before here, 2010 is a critical election year for many African countries, including Madagascar. Incidentally and  unfortunately,  many of the elections for 2010, past or upcoming are fraught with suspicion of fraud, landslide victory or ethnocentric voting. For every democratic election that proceeded as well as hoped in Ghana or Somaliland, we have two or three elections that have many people wondering whether the democratic process is worth the effort if people who don't play by democratic roles  end up winning the game anyway.

If you know me a little bit, you know that I read and watch way too much sports. In that field, there are many ways to try to curb cheating thanks to performance enhancing drugs but the easiest way to suspect foul is to find unexplained "jumps" in an athlete performance.
In baseball, the steroids era is filled with players with a sudden increase in performance ( Tejada, Sosa etc..), Ben Johnson went from 10.1s to 9.83s in a year and tennis man Petr Korda enjoyed a career year in 1998 before being banned for ingesting substance.

This is especially relevant for politics where a country cannot easily go back after releasing official results and undo the results if evidence of malfeasance were found. The damages must be caught right away. The only way to suspect that  something fishy is going on is if the electoral results are way off compare to the opinion polls. The problem is, robust opinion polls are expensive to carry and difficult to conduct properly without the proper experience. For opinion polls to be meaningful and trustworthy, they need to be conducted repeatedly which also costs money.
Opinion polls are not part of the culture for many of the countries trying to embrace democratic elections. We start to see many polls on website and online forums but as you know, internet penetration is still too low for the medium to be truly representative of most nations.
But maybe technology can still be of help here. It's been highly documented that mobile phones are driving a few of the progress seen in sub Saharan Africa.  We have seen that text messages mapped on platform like Ushahidi have been used as election monitoring tools.

So why not use this very technology  for opinion poll surveys ? It sure is not as scholastic or as meaningful as election monitoring or crisis reporting but in my opinion, it could be as important for developing sustainable democratic nations for the long term.
If every young people, farmers or cab drivers can instantly and repeatedly weigh in about the performances of their political representatives on issues that matters to them.

I think this is where crowd sourcing could have the most relevant and more importantly, the most "measurable" impact. A low-cost  easily implementable platform, comprehensible goal than can be sustained over a long period. Awareness of such polling project can be raised progressively and geo-location can be added, anonymously.

I am sure there are drawbacks to such an idea but I think the positives could outweigh them. After all, what could be more important that getting the electoral results right without having to worry excessively that ballots stuffing occurred ?

A party can try to game an election on a fixed period but one cannot cheat opinion polls over a whole year.

An additional positive aspect would be that political leaders would be hold accountable, even on non-electoral years when they see their positive feedback falling off the cliff.

Right now,  some believe that the transitional government is at an all-time low in popularity well others think that they still have the support of the "people" (Ridiculous numbers were offered by several politicians when asked about their popularity during the 2009 crisis).

Continuous reliable opinion surveys conducted by independent entities would answer that question.

I dream of the day a website like Five ThirtyEight would come to life in Africa. That day, one will know that democracy has taken roots on the continent.



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