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Human Rights

The role of artificial intelligence in African elections

General abstract

The emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology in Africa has revolutionised the electoral processes. There are fears that if not properly regulated, the use of AI may cause irreparable injuries to African elections. These fears have prompted discussions on how AI could be effectively regulated and its potential impact on African elections.

Introduction and background

    The emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology in Africa has revolutionised the electoral processes. AI has become an essential tool that is beginning to be widely used in electoral processes with potential to advance the credibility of African elections.[1] The use of AI is also now employed in early warning systems for conflict prevention,  analysis of varied data sources for election campaigns, including social media and mainstream media,  and detecting emergent conflict patterns and trends.[2] Despite these positives, there are also worries that AI if not properly managed, has the potential to pose a threat to electoral processes, emerging security risks, such as cybersecurity, technology surveillance, misinformation, and disinformation in electoral processes to mention a few. In this context, this paper  discusses key issues on the rise of AI, its utility, opportunities, and challenges within African electoral processes.

    Key issues arising from the emergence of AI in African elections

    AI has disrupted the electoral landscape in Africa, and plays a significant role in improving the quality of elections.[3] These include enhanced voter registration, candidate selection, political parties manifestos, campaigns and verification processes among others. To be specific, AI technologies have proved efficient in voter registration and verification processes through the use of biometric systems such as facial recognition and fingerprint scanning which are widely used in African states. Such technology has proved efficient in ensuring that only eligible voters may participate in the electoral process. AI has also enhanced electoral data analysis and predictive analytics.[4] For instance, AI is capable of analysing vast amounts of data to identify patterns, trends, and potential irregularities in voter behavior, election campaigns and election results. Therefore, the use of AI can help EMBs and election stakeholders to detect and prevent electoral fraud or manipulation, among other malpractices.

    It is argued that AI-powered systems have shown capacity to enhance the security of electoral processes by detecting and preventing cybersecurity threats, such as hacking attempts on electoral systems and databases or disinformation campaigns aimed at influencing or misleading voters.  More so, AI technologies are also being used to monitor and observe elections in real time by analysing social media, news reports, and other online sources for indicators of electoral malpractice. This has increased transparency and accountability in the electoral process.[5] Of note, recent electoral trends show increased engagement with voters through chatbots, mobile apps, and social media platforms to provide information about candidates, election procedures, and polling locations.  In some cases, this has given rise to an increase in voter turnout and participation in the electoral process.

    The use of AI in Early Warning Systems and Conflict prevention in African Elections

    The use of AI-driven early warning systems is pivotal in conflict prevention, enabling the detection and analysis of early indicators of potential conflicts during elections.[6] These systems enable African EMBs and election stakeholders to take proactive measures, mitigating the impact of conflicts and ensuring timely and effective responses to emerging electoral threats, thereby enhancing governance, stability and the credibility of elections. The use of AI in early warning systems and conflict prevention in African elections is a significant advancement in mitigating potential electoral violence and instability. AI-driven early warning systems have helped to analyse and understand the patterns and trends in data such as social media, news reports, and historical election data.[7]

    Challenges and opportunities

    While recent trends indicate that AI has shown potential in revolutionising the electoral processes in Africa, however, concerns about how AI technologies are used ethically and in compliance with data privacy regulations to maintain the credibility of elections remain valid. AI, when manipulated, presents challenges of disinformation, misinformation, data privacy and could exacerbate existing inequalities in access to information and resources. The percentage of African electoral commissions not engaged in deploying AI for elections outweighs those employing AI systems. A plethora of reasons account for this non-adoption. They include financial constraints and AI-generated harmful or misleading information that negatively impacts voter behaviour and potentially results in voter disenfranchisement. Also, political actors can also exploit generative AI to impersonate election officials and clone election results management processes. The use of AI when predicting voter behaviour based on unfettered access to voters’ data undermines privacy rights and could intensify biometric surveillance. Similarly, AI-based authentication of voters’ facial or fingerprint features could produce authentication errors, and algorithms may lead to bias against specific voters. These concerns disincentivize most African electoral commissions from adopting AI.[8]

    Opportunities presented by AI systems include improved election observation and monitoring of elections to detect irregularities. Increased voter engagement and participation in the electoral process, providing more accurate and timely information to all stakeholders. A recent Yiaga Africa survey of electoral commissions in 22 African countries revealed that AI is being deployed for voter register management, automated chatbots for voter engagement, voter authentication and cyber threat detection in South Africa, Eswatini, Madagascar and Nigeria, respectively. AI is addressing the challenge of human interference and inefficiency in elections by facilitating oversight and accelerated decision-making. Advanced analytics and machine learning models detect anomalies and inaccuracies in election data to avert election manipulation. However, these African elections have shown that the impact of AI on African elections depends on how these technologies are regulated and implemented.[9]

    Conclusion and recommendations for action

    While AI is a game changer to African elections, the discourse on AI and elections is shaped by binary power relations with Africa, which is disadvantaged due to its limited ownership of the technological infrastructure to power AI systems. Africans own none of the big tech companies. Africa needs a regulatory framework to inhibit the manipulation of AI to undermine election integrity, information integrity and democracy. Efforts must be made to ensure African states understand AI technology to deepen democratic and electoral processes.


    [1] Samson Itodo, ‘Artificial Intelligence and the integrity of African elections’ <https://www.idea.int/news/artificial-intelligence-and-integrity-african-elections> accessed 28 June 2024.

    [2] Yiaga Africa, ‘Yiaga Africa hosts Regional Conference to Explore Artificial Intelligence in African Elections’ <https://yiaga.org/aiandelectionsconference/> accessed 28 June 2024.  

    [3] Chinasa T Okolo, ‘Call for Contributions: Help Inform the African Union AI Continental Strategy for Africa’ <https://chinasatokolo.medium.com/call-for-contributions-help-inform-the-african-union-ai-continental-strategy-for-africa-7a616578b0f4> accessed 28 June 2024.

    [4] The AU High-Level Panel on Emerging Technologies (APET) <‘https://www.nepad.org/microsite/african-union-high-level-panel-emerging-technologies-apet’> accessed 28 June 2024.

    [5] Prathm Juneja, ‘Artificial Intelligence for Electoral Management’<https://www.idea.int/sites/default/files/2024-04/artificial-intelligence-for-electoral-management.pdf> accessed 28 June 2024.

    [6] Yankoski, M., Weninger, T., & Scheirer, W, ‘An AI early warning system to monitor online disinformation, stop violence, and protect elections, (2020)’ 76(2), 85–90 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

    [7] Ibid.

    [8]  Yiaga Africa, ‘Yiaga Africa hosts Regional Conference to Explore Artificial Intelligence in African Elections’ <https://yiaga.org/aiandelectionsconference/> accessed 28 June 2024.

    [9] Ibid.

    Author

    • Tendai Mbanje

      Tendai Shephard Mbanje is a doctoral candidate specialising in International Human Rights Law at the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria. Tendai is a governance, election and legal scholar whose research focuses on electoral processes within the African Union (AU) and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs). He has written extensively on the subject and regularly comments on international media platforms (including Television) on the work of the AU and the RECs, particularly on electoral and governance processes. Professionally, Tendai has served as a technical Assistant at the Secretariat of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Banjul, the Gambia. He is an accredited international election observer with African Union Election Observer Missions (AUEOMs) and the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA). Most recently, Tendai served as an Assistant Election Analyst to the European Union Election Observation Mission to Zimbabwe 2023 Harmonised Elections. He is also a consultant to NGOs whose work focuses on elections.

    By Tendai Mbanje

    Tendai Shephard Mbanje is a doctoral candidate specialising in International Human Rights Law at the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria. Tendai is a governance, election and legal scholar whose research focuses on electoral processes within the African Union (AU) and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs). He has written extensively on the subject and regularly comments on international media platforms (including Television) on the work of the AU and the RECs, particularly on electoral and governance processes. Professionally, Tendai has served as a technical Assistant at the Secretariat of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Banjul, the Gambia. He is an accredited international election observer with African Union Election Observer Missions (AUEOMs) and the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA). Most recently, Tendai served as an Assistant Election Analyst to the European Union Election Observation Mission to Zimbabwe 2023 Harmonised Elections. He is also a consultant to NGOs whose work focuses on elections.

    One reply on “The role of artificial intelligence in African elections”

    Good read.

    Consider maybe touching base on: Accessibility as a AI attribute in enhancing the credibility of electoral processes.

    1. Language translation: AI- powered translation tools can make election materials accessible to non-native speakers, ensuring all voters understand the information.

    2.Assistive Technology: Al can provide tools for voters with disabilities, such as speech-to-text for the visually impaired or voice commands for those with mobility issues.

    Awaiting Part 2. Mitigation Strategies
    So as to get the most out of these technologies and get rid of perennial election fraud in Africa.

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