By Prof. Chijere Chirwa and Dr. Nandini Patel
This document is a report on the Malawi Election Information Centre (MEIC), an Election Situation Room (ESR) and citizen journalism initiative for the 2014 tripartite elections in Malawi, funded by the Open Society Institute for Southern Africa (OSISA) and Hivos Foundation (the Humanist Institute for Development Cooperation) with related support from other partners.
The MEIC was an initiative of a coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) with a common interest in collaborating on activities related to the 2014 Malawi tripartite elections, led by the Malawi Electoral Support Network (MESN). It was a multi-stakeholder initiative devised as a platform for CSOs to collaborate on elections observation and monitoring, and to provide a rapid response and proactive advocacy strategy related to the elections. It was designed to provide reliable, timely, evidenced-based and freely-accessible information to all those interested in the elections. Modelled, though with modifications, on similar successful initiatives in other African countries, especially those pioneered by the Open Society Institute for West Africa (OSIWA) in West Africa and Hivos Foundation in East Africa, the ESR was open to the media and the public, and utilised free SMS messages to allow voters to verify that they were registered and to give citizen journalists an opportunity to report on election-related news across the country.
The MEIC’s objectives were to:
- Support the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) to manage the electoral process, to ensure its credibility, and to ensure that the process was free and fair, and reflected the will of Malawians;
- Provide the voter population with credible, evidence-based information gathered by observers on a real-time basis as events unfolded on election day;
- Provide data to enable experts to analyse prevailing trends at polling stations and keep the people informed as part of preventing rumour mongering that could possibly result in violent behaviour;
- Provide a rapid response to elections emergency situations that could possibly affect the credibility of the electoral process; and
- Provide a dedicated online platform to enable citizens to share election experiences.
The MEIC’s project components were:
- Mobile voter verification – a parallel voter verification process set-up by Got-To-Vote campaignii and Code for Africa in conjunction with the MEC. This process was integrated into the Chisanko Platform, and a short SMS code – 5VOTE  – was provided to registered voters to use free of charge in verifying personal registration data and polling stations. Responses were provided in chiChewa, chiTumbuka and English.
- Observation and monitoring – field election observers collected data using checklists as guides and sent encoded messages by cell phones through a technology coordination platform – the Vote N Text system – operated by the SMAG Network provided by SMAG Media UK LTD. The data generated was processed and converted into comprehensible information in the form of reports, analysed by the expert team and communicated to relevant stakeholder groups for their information or for rapid response and quick decision-making.
- Citizen journalism – aimed at giving citizens a platform for their voices to be heard. They participated in the elections by using the short code 5VOTE  to send in evidence-based information about what was taking place in and around polling stations in their constituencies. These three components were integrated with two mobile operators in Malawi, Airtel and TNM, by the SMAG Media Network and functioned as a unified system for data collection, analysis and publication.
The MEIC operational structure comprised a taskforce of CSOs, an expert team, a technology team, data officers and field observers. Technological operations were led by SMAG Media UK LTD with support from Hivos Foundation and Code for Africa (Code4Africa). The MEIC used a hierarchical structure from field observers at the polling stations to the CSO task force at the ESR as follows:
- Field observers – the project recruited and trained 4 500 election observers who acted as data collectors. They covered 100 per cent of the polling centres, capturing data through provided checklists. Data from the polling centres across the country were forwarded by SMS four times a day: morning, afternoon, evening and night.
- Data officers – the project recruited 30 data officers who monitored the text messages received by the system from the observers to ensure that the data were only from authorised users, to correct any potential message coding
- errors the observers may have made, and to reinsert the messages into the data processing cycle. The citizen journalism text messages were also monitored by the experts to extract quick analysis before they were presented to the media.
- Expert team – three experts analysed pre-election data, data collected on election day, and post-election activities. The analyses of data were approved by a sub-committee of the CSO taskforce and published on the official web site www.malawivote2014.org or released by the media centre as press releases to the public (or both).
- CSO taskforce (in full or a sub-committee) – this was the highest decisionmaking body for the project and gave approval on content aspects of the project. The full taskforce comprised of 18 CSOs, whose work covered the whole of Malawi. On election day, a sub-committee of the taskforce worked with the experts on the interpretation of trends, the status quo of voters and the general public, rapid actions to mitigate disruption of voting and counting of votes, as well as informing the public on a near real-time basis.
The sections below provide an analysis of the data captured by the ESR, starting with the pre-election phase, followed by observations on the polling day, the counting and tallying of the votes, announcement of results, and the post-election phase. General conclusions and recommendations are provided at the end.