Ghana’s Biometric Voter Register Fights Voter Fraud Without Harming Elections by Thomas Baumgarten @ Ohio State University
After achieving independence on March 6th, 1957 and finally establishing a multiparty democracy in 1992, Ghana appears to be on the right track to having a lasting democracy. From then on, Ghana’s success in democratic practices in a region that is largely undemocratic is not an accident. A keystone of their success are there general elections being free and fair.
Part of their success in keeping their elections free and fair is due to their Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission was established when the country became a multiparty democracy in 1992 for the purpose of maintaining the freedom and fairness of their elections. The EC is responsible for all public elections which includes the oversight of voter registration and the supervision of the general election.
On the voter registration front, the EC has made strong efforts to crack down on voter fraud especially in recent presidential elections. Before the 2000 elections, the EC implemented transparent ballot boxes that are placed in the open. This method was used in response to reports of ballot stuffing occurring when the boxes were opaque. Then, starting for the 2012 general election, the EC compiled a biometric voter register as another method of eliminating voter fraud. This method, which requires the use of a thumb print when voting, is used cut down on forms of voter fraud such as double voting and impersonation.
Now as Ozan Varol discusses in Stealth Authoritarianism, voter registration laws can be used to disenfranchise some parts of a population, which would effectively inhibit their ability to vote and have their voices heard. Because of this, the new biometric voter register in Ghana might be seen as actually hurting the freedom and fairness of the elections instead of improving them through the elimination of voter fraud.
Here are a few reasons as to why this is not the case. First, in Varol’s discussion, voter registration is used as a tool by incumbents to restrict their opposition from participating and to keep themselves in power. However, the biometric voter registration laws in Ghana were put in place under President John Mahama of the National Democratic Congress party. He would go on to win the following election in 2012, but then would go on to lose the elections in 2016 to Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party despite the fact that these laws were still in place. As a result of this, these laws appear to have not been deployed to restrict the electoral participation of the opposition, but instead were deployed to actually fight voter fraud.
Another reason as to why Ghana’s new biometric voter registration laws are not hurting the freedom and fairness of their elections is that they are very different from the ones that Varol lists as restrictive voter registration laws. Varol’s description of restrictive voter registration laws involves those laws which require documentation like proof of citizenship or residency in order to vote or register to vote. This can disproportionately affect the ability of the poor and those without access to official forms of identification to vote in elections. However, the new biometric voter registration laws in Ghana that do not do this. The biometric voter register allows citizens who are of legal age to vote so long as they registered correctly and provided their thumbprint on their registration. This voter registration law is actually very inclusive in that most voters have a thumbprint, and thumbprints are unique to each individual making it a more accessible way of identification. Thus, the only people this law might negatively affect are those without thumbprints. This likely makes up a very small portion of the population in comparison to those who would be affected by the voter registration laws that Varol discusses.
One final reason that Ghana’s new biometric voter registration laws are not hurting the freedom and fairness of their elections is that the experts at Varieties of Democracy do not think they are. V-Dem has an indicator that measures for the accuracy of voter registries in countries. Through 2012-2016 when the biometric voter register was introduced, Ghana has seen their rating decline to about 3.08 on their scale which indicates that some voters may have been disenfranchised, but there is no effect of double voting on the results the election. However, there should be some caution to the interpretation of their biometric voter register as being harmful to the freedom and fairness of their elections. For one, the confidence intervals of these ratings are large, so the decline might not be as steep as it appears. Secondly, despite this decline in the rating in this area, V-Dem’s ratings on elections as free and fair in Ghana is unchanged at about 3.46 Both of these taken together indicates that the new biometric voter register had little to no negative effect on the freedom and fairness of their elections.
Ghana’s new biometric voter register might be different from voter registration laws in other democracies, but it does not affect the freedom and fairness of their elections. The success of their elections is something to keep an eye on in the future as they continue to lay and build on the foundation of a successful democracy in a region where there are so few.
*Photo by Sarah Brierley and George Ofosu, Creative Commons Zero license.
 Varol, Ozan O., Stealth Authoritarianism, 100 Iowa Law Review 1673 (2015); Lewis & Clark Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2014-12.