Biometric voter registration: A new modality of democracy assistance?

AuthorKatja Lindskov Jacobsen
Date01 March 2020
Publication Date01 March 2020
Cooperation and Conflict
2020, Vol. 55(1) 127 –148
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0010836719850219
Biometric voter registration:
A new modality of democracy
Katja Lindskov Jacobsen
It has been argued that we are witnessing a retreat from democracy promotion in liberal
interventionism. Focusing on the roll-out of biometric voter registration (BVR) across Africa,
as supported by institutions such as the United Nations Development Programme, this article
suggests that rather than a retreat we are seeing the emergence of a new and seemingly lighter
approach to liberal democracy promotion. Through an analysis of the use of BVR in Kenyan
elections, the article illustrates some key implications of this development. At the local level, the
framing of BVR as a ‘solution’ omits important challenges to democratic elections in Kenya. At
the global level, the roll-out of BVR reinforces unequal global power structures, for example by
constituting an increasing number of African states as laboratories for the trialling of a technology
which, due to fears of hacking, has now been rolled back in the US. To make this argument, the
article combines insights from recent debates about the state of liberal interventionism, with
insights from Michel Foucault and Sheila Jasanoff about the politics of technology.
Intervention, liberal democracy, biometric voter registration, Kenya, politics of technology,
Science and Technology Studies, Jasanoff
Interventions of various kinds have been justified with reference to the aim of transforming
entire nations into or assisting their development towards liberal democracy (Ayers,
2006; Jahn, 2007; Kurki, 2011; Pickering and Peceny, 2006). As part of long-standing
debates about liberal democracy promotion, it has been argued, that we are witnessing ‘a
retreat from democracy in liberal interventionism’ (Cooper, 2007: 614) – debates that US
President Trump’s emphasis on retreat from developmental and other ‘soft’ programmes
in Africa has revitalized (Campbell, 2017). Yet, as noted regarding other forms of
Corresponding author:
Katja Lindskov Jacobsen, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen,
850219CAC0010.1177/0010836719850219Cooperation and ConflictJacobsen
128 Cooperation and Conflict 55(1)
intervention, retreat is not necessarily antithetical to expansion (Aaronson et al., 2016;
Duffield, 2010), an important point, which is echoed in this article’s analysis of liberal
institutions’ support of the roll-out of biometric voter registration (BVR) in democracy-
promoting interventions throughout Africa. Though not the only region that has seen a
turn to biometrics in electoral processes, Africa is an example of a continent where
biometrics is currently rolled out in an increasing number of states with high hopes
invested in the ability of BVR to bring about ‘free, fair and credible’ elections.1 Different
versions of BVR have been implemented in 28 African states2 and, as noted by a biometric
vendor: ‘with more than 40 legislative and presidential elections in Africa in 2018 and
2019, the question of electoral processes is a very topical issue’ (Gemalto, 2018). Taking
note of this turn to BVR in Africa, and of the role of external actors in supporting this
process, this article suggests that, rather than having retreated, the promotion of
democracy through liberal interventionism has taken new forms, with BVR representing
one new modality of democracy assistance. Put differently, with the roll-out of BVR we
are seeing the contours of a modality, which places greater emphasis on the use of
technocratic strategies to resolve complex political challenges. Though BVR makes up a
relatively small component of international engagement in Africa, it nonetheless tells us
something interesting about the ways in which donors turn to technical ‘solutions’ when
faced with intractable political issues, and thus about the ways in which democracy is
increasingly promoted through new technology rather than, for example, through military
intervention (e.g. Peceny, 1995) or conditionality (e.g. Baylies, 1995). Although the
analysis focuses in particular on the role of external actors, this is not to neglect the
significance of agency on the part of African actors. Certainly, demands made by various
local actors are an important aspect of the political landscapes across which these new
democracy-promoting technologies are being rolled out.
To make this argument and to frame the analysis of externally supported BVR in
Africa, the article engages insights from two sets of literatures; namely debates about
Science and Technology Studies (STS) in international relations (IR) and debates
about liberal interventionism. Drawing on insights from the STS literature in an
analysis of important material aspects of contemporary democracy promotion offers
a novel framing of the significance of the increasing use of BVR across Africa.
Specifically, STS insights are translated into three analytical steps. First, the article
explores the socially constructed framing of BVR technology as found in United
Nations Development Programme (UNDP) accounts. UNDP is one of the main
institutions to offer support for the use of BVR in elections throughout Africa. This
analysis illustrates how an important dimension of its appeal is that BVR is considered
a neutral and apolitical form of technical democracy assistance. Second, by zooming
in on the roll-out of BVR in Kenya, the article challenges this framing by exploring
the politics of BVR technology. Specifically, the politics of BVR is explored at two
levels: local and global. At the local level, the analysis explores how the turn to BVR
has implications for how ‘the problem’ of democracy in Kenya gets framed. It is
shown how critical factors such as corruption and the financing of election campaigns
with money gained via links to drugs smuggling risk being omitted from a BVR-
guided problem framing. At the global level, the analysis highlights how the turn to
BVR has political implications, when considering, for example, the hierarchical

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