KINSHASA, Congo – As Congo hurtles toward Sunday's already troubled election, the opposition on Tuesday urged mobile phone companies to disable SIM cards provided for voting machines as concerns grow about how the ballots of some 40 million people will be counted and shared.
Election officials have said everything is in order for the vote that already has faced more than two years of delays, but critics, observers and even some polling workers say confusion surrounds the preparations.
A major issue is the voting machines that this vast Central African country plans to use for the first time as it chooses a successor to longtime President Joseph Kabila. In the past week some electoral workers said they still hadn't seen, much less been trained on, the machines.
Amid the last-minute rush, a serious concern has emerged: Several electoral workers allege the voting machines will be used to send results electronically, opening the door to possible manipulation.
The machines have faced months of criticism, with opposition figures, diplomats and others asking how a country with little reliable electricity, and many voters without computer experience, can successfully vote in a single day. Earlier this month, nearly 8,000 of the voting machines were destroyed in a fire in the capital, Kinshasa, leading to the latest election delay.
"We are ready and we are going to stick to the date (of Dec. 30)," election commission president Corneille Nangaa said Monday. "Everybody will participate in these elections, which are historic for our country. They will allow for the very first time a peaceful transition of power."
Electoral officials insist the machines will be used only as printers after voters tap on touchscreens to select preferred candidates.
"We will proceed to manual counting and the results will be written on the proper forms. Only those results will be announced, not the results from the machines," Nangaa said earlier this month.
But several people being trained to be electoral agents told The Associated Press they have been taught about the machines' electronic transmission capabilities, saying the machines will be used to directly transmit voting data to the central server.
"What they're saying on TV is different from what we are being taught," said one, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. "They explained that the (machine's) SIM card will directly transmit data."
"When the computer technician told us about data transmission, everybody in the room was puzzled," said Anacle Kabwisi, 38, as several agents nodded. "I asked the trainers which one, the manual or electronical count, will prevail. They told us both of them were very important."
The voting machines' ability to electronically transmit results has been known for months. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy, a UK-supported organization, has said they can keep an electronic record of all votes and transfer it via the phone network, a satellite link or the internet.
The group advised Congo's electoral commission to deactivate the machines' SIM cards and Wi-Fi transmission functions. The commission responded that Wi-Fi would be disconnected but the SIM cards would be used for "monitoring."
At the electoral commission headquarters this week, officials gave conflicting details.
"The machine is just for printing the ballot," said programming analyst Solange Ngoie. "According to the law, only the manual count will be taken into account, but electronic transmission will be used to avoid any manipulation of the results. We know what the machine has been printing and we send this to the local compilation center thanks to the SIM card."
But after conferring with a press officer, Ngoie said the SIM cards will only be used to monitor polling stations' opening and closing.
Nangaa, the electoral commission's president, in response to questions said all ballots will be physically transferred from polling stations to local compilation centers, where data will be sent to headquarters. The voting machines with their data also will be transported to the centers.
"That data will also be sent to Kinshasa so we have two sources," he said.
On election day, electoral observers and political parties' witnesses will have no way to check whether the machines are transmitting data.
"That is up to observers to find ways to monitor this," Nangaa said.
Congo's government, annoyed by international criticism over the election delays, has rejected outside funding and "interference." Major observer groups from the U.S. and Europe will not be present.
Local observers, asked about the issue, have expressed concern.
"Data should only be transferred from the local compilation centers where they can be checked by observers," said Cyrille Ebotoko, technical supervisor of the Catholic Church's observer group that plans to deploy 40,000 people. They will not be able to access the machines' software, Ebotoko said.
The electoral commission needs to say clearly how Sunday's votes will be transmitted, said Maitre Sylvain Lumu, a lawyer with the SYMOCEL civil society electoral observation mission that plans to deploy 21,000 people.
"If there is any other kind of electronical data transfer than the satellite from local compilation centers that will be in breach of the law," Lumu warned.
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