World’s First SMS Voter Registration System
After decades of autocratic rule, Libya believed a text message voter registration system would lead to unprecedented access to the democratic process. They wanted the system in six months.
The Libyan High National Elections Commission (HNEC) with consulting support by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya received a parliamentary mandate to develop a text-message or SMS voter registration system.
In order to ensure equal access to the democratic process, the Libyan government embraced SMS technology due to its ubiquity and cost effectiveness. World Bank statistics show that there are 165 cell phone subscriptions for every 100 Libyans in 2013. The government issued a mandate to the Libyan High National Elections Commission (HNEC) to build the world’s first SMS voter registration system. This forward-thinking approach was prompted by the challenges of in person voter registrations:
- Bombings, threats of violence, protests, and delivery blockage of registration materials made in-person voter registration dangerous for both staff and citizens. Of 1,300 registration stations in December 2013, 78 stations were forcibly closed.
- The staff and training required for in-person registration was substantial. Nearly 6000 school teachers were trained, but manual errors remained significant.
- In-person voter registration is significantly more costly compared to SMS voter registrations.
- The population is geographically spread out, including nomadic populations that live in the Sahara desert.
Because this was the first system of its kind, HNEC needed a technical implementer that had a strong SMS background but who were also creative and innovative enough to start from scratch. Additionally, they needed developers who could create high quality RapidSMS code that would ensure the stability of the system.
Caktus developers led the technical implementation of Libya’s text message voter registration system across two elections with multiple supporting applications.
Work with Caktus has been a fantastic experience. It is rare to find a contractor who is willing to be so committed to the success of a project and to work so resolutely towards it, despite the often difficult and sensitive situations. I have been happy to work with the entire team, who demonstrate high efficiency and experience, day after day.
Dr. Emad Al-Sayeh
Head of Libyan High National Elections Commission
The voter registration system appears simple to users: they text their ID and their preferred polling location. The system sends a text message back with a confirmation and the polling location. However, the simplicity of the system was the result of extensive work by HNEC, the UN, and Caktus across two elections. Initially, HNEC and UN elections experts created mock screenshots and broad workflow guidelines for how the application would function. Caktus then worked iteratively with them to uncover potential issues and delve deeply into optimizing the registration process. Creating a seemingly simple solution required thoughtfully answering such complex questions as:
- What if a citizen wishes to change their polling location?
- What if a single person appears to be registering at multiple locations?
- What if too many people appear to be registering from the same cell phone?
- How to ensure security of the data?
- What if there are technical difficulties?
- What if the entire population of Libya attempts to use the system simultaneously?
- How to ensure the system continues to function despite civil unrest and internet disruptions?
- What if someone claims someone else’s registration is not valid?
To address these questions, Caktus needed to build an ecosystem of applications to support the entire voter registration process for Libya. This happened in two phases. The first successful run of the system for the 60-seat constitutional assembly election (February 2014) served as a proof of concept. Under Caktus' sole technical direction, further feature and application development for the more significant 200-seat national assembly elections (June 2014) allowed the complete elimination of paper voter registrations.Caktus built the following applications for Libya's voter registration system using RapidSMS, an open source, Django-based web framework originally developed by UNICEF. (Caktus was an original core contributor to the creation of RapidSMS.)
- Registration via SMS. Voters could register to vote and change their registration via SMS using a short code. Short codes are a small number of digits rather than an entire phone number. Even during periods when citizens could register or change registrations in person, the election workers used SMS to send in the changes.
- Verification of registration via SMS. Election day poll workers could verify individual registrants by SMSing the database.
- Reminders via SMS. The system sent messages to individual registrants, reminding them of voting day and their poll location. Nationwide messages could also be sent via the system.
- Automated guide for help desk workers. This was an especially critical component created for the June 2014 elections. Election workers manning the call center phones could resolve citizen questions using a tool Caktus created. Workers could walk through different scenarios to find solutions using an on-screen guide they could click through.
- Polling day tracking. HNEC additionally requested a voter turnout tool that would allow them to track which polls were opening on election day and which stations needed support. Poll workers counted voters as they cast their ballots, sending the counts via text message to the database. The system rendered these numbers onto a data dashboard in real-time, allowing decision-makers to rapidly respond to challenges in the field.
- Server optimization and management. In order to scale up quickly during instances of high volume, it was essential that Caktus consider server design and deployment.
- Mobile network integration. Caktus worked with Praekelt Foundation to create a Vumi instance, necessary in order for Libya’s cellular networks to accept messages and send them to the database. Praekelt then integrated our Vumi instance to the cellular network. Because this was a government service and the Mobile Network Operators are partially state-owned, this lent itself to a close working relationship and technical integration between the MNOs and the Caktus tools.
- Vigilant unit testing and project management. With potentially millions of users, civil unrest, and developers working around the globe, excellent project management was necessary in order to deliver the project on time and on budget. Constant communication in addition to continual quality testing allowed our developers to pre-empt potential issues.
Despite periodic violence in Libya, Caktus delivered the SMS voter registration system on time and on budget across two elections, enabling 1.5 million registrations.
Even under the most difficult situations, Caktus displayed their professionalism and expertise. Beyond that, at all times they worked hand-in-hand with the Commission, as though we were one team working towards one goal. Working with Caktus was a pleasure, I am proud of what we have achieved together, and hope this relationship will continue.
Former Head of Data Management, Libya High National Elections Commission
The SMS voter registration system, as of August 2014, registered 1.5 million Libyan citizens across two elections. The first election to use the system was for the 60-member Constitutional Assembly, the writers of the constitution, on February 20, 2014. SMS voter registration went smoothly, garnering a recommendation from the Carter Center. HNEC and the United Nations Support Mission to Libya invited the Carter Center to evaluate the elections.
Given the capacity of the SMS system, which allows for a large number of voters to be processed over a short period of time and which is a simple procedure for the majority of users, this system should be used again in future elections.
The Carter Center
For the larger 200 seat national assembly election on June 25th, Caktus staff went to Libya and worked directly with HNEC. The election was originally slated to be in August. However, increased hostilities and an attempted coup led to a request to move the election date up, and Caktus was able to deliver the second phase of the voter registration system two months early. The voter registration system managed over 6 million text messages without incident.