A crucial time-saving function of the new digital voter registration system may not have been taught to the more than 2,000 computer operators who today will begin the task of registering Cambodia’s nearly 10 million eligible voters, it has emerged.
After months of preparation, and several delays, the reformed bipartisan National Election Committee today launches a nationwide, three-month campaign to create new computerised voter lists.
With the commune elections set for June 2017, the NEC has been racing against the clock to distribute the digital registration kits – including laptops and thumbprint scanners – to registration stations set up in Cambodia’s more than 1,600 communes, which will be manned by about 7,200 newly hired staff.
The new system is designed to combat voter fraud – the shadow of which has long hung over Cambodian elections – and forms part of a 2014 election reform deal between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party that ended almost a year of deadlock following the disputed 2013 national ballot.
A significant advantage of the software is that it allows officials to use a preexisting database of citizens’ information via the new Cambodian identity cards’ biometric chip when they come to register – negating the need for manually re-entering all of a person’s details into the system.
However, speaking to the Post, computer operators and staff at three registration offices in Phnom Penh yesterday said they did not believe they could access the records, which are held by the Ministry of Interior.
“We have to [input the data] for everyone, even if they have a new ID card,” said Toch Nimol, president of the registration office in Phnom Penh’s Phsar Doeum Thkov commune.
Phsar Kandal I commune’s sole computer operator Long Korn, 40, said he was unaware of the option to use the database, but had been instructed to input the data manually.
“I feel prepared after the training,” he added, as a song explaining voter registration blared in the background.
Reached for comment, NEC spokesman Hang Puthea said the computers would have access to the Interior Ministry database, but conceded the computer operators, who have been given just three days of training, may not have learned about the function.
“If they answer like that, it means they have not received that information yet,” Puthea said, adding the NEC would make them aware when the registration started.
Puthea has previously said the estimate of seven minutes to register a single voter – on which the body bases its calculation that each station can register 120 people per day – was based on manually inserting personal data.
However, he said, by using the Interior Ministry database, that time could be cut to three minutes.
Lawyer Billy Tai, who is working as a consultant for election monitor Comfrel, said confusion over the database was the latest cause for concern with the registration efforts.
He noted that the more computer operators were required to manually enter data, the greater the risk of human error.
“Considering they have only received the equipment two weeks ago and, only as late as a week ago, they were still recruiting people, I would find it unbelievable that they would have the whole project ready to go tomorrow,” Tai said yesterday.
It also remains unclear whether voter registration offices will be open during October’s Pchum Ben holiday, when many people will get time off work and travel to their home province.
Though the NEC has said that no decision has been made on the issue, several registration workers spoken to by the Post said they already had plans for the holiday.
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With both major political parties imploring supporters to register, men and women manning the voter register stations in the capital this week said they felt ready for the influx.
Speaking at his office on Tuesday, Phsar Doeum Thkov commune chief Heng Sophat said he arranged for people from the constituency’s seven villages, home to an estimated 10,000 eligible voters, to come on different days, though he stressed that did not preclude anyone from registering on any day.
“We have invited 60 people for the first morning,” Sophat said. “I think we can register the voters in time.
”Downstairs, Nimol, the registration centre president, walked the Post through the three stations where, moving counter-clockwise, voters will present their ID cards, fill out a form with their details and then have those particulars logged, with their thumbprint and photograph.
“The monks, the old, pregnant women and disabled people will not have to wait in line,” he added.
In Tonle Bassac commune, computer operator Morakot and her 21-year-old colleague, Poung Vuthea, who is also a university student, ran through a mock registration, with the former playing the part of a prospective voter.
Despite the rushed training, Morakot said she felt ready.
“We can handle it,” she said.
Potential trouble areas to watch
Voter list accuracy:
Seventeen per cent of registrations in 2013 had the wrong name or no name listed, according to election watchdog Comfrel. This time around, voters will have multiple opportunities to verify thae accuracy of their registration information. Comfrel has called for the new registration lists to be 98 per cent accurate.
During last year’s electronic voter registration trials, transmission of registration data was at times disrupted by unreliable internet access. The NEC has now established three methods for transferring registration data, including via USB drive if internet service is unavailable.
Voter registration trials were also hampered by the unavailability of steady power sources in some locations. Many of the registration laptops, particularly those which will be used in rural areas, include external battery packs for extra juice. The NEC has also obtained 150 generators to provide backup power where needed.
Hacker group Anonymous Cambodia claimed to have hacked the NEC’s servers just before the 2013 election. Japanese-funded technical consultants have supported the NEC in developing security infrastructure for this year’s registration servers, according to Japanese Embassy spokeswoman Nao Otsuka.
Beating the time crunch:
Due to a series of delays, the NEC will have limited time to finalise voter registration lists before the 2017 commune elections. NEC employees are expected to work seven days a week between now and the end of the year to ensure preparations are completed in time for the 2017 election.