AI and Elections
Making AI Work for Elections
Arguably, AI has the world curious and there is more conversation and practise of what it has to offer. As it has continued to advance, in the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom's article authored by Fanuel Jongwe titled Stakeholders call for robust AI regulations in Africa amid concerns over ethical deployment -16 January 2024, it notes “there are still a lot of unknowns and gaps. In the African context, what's required is a transnational approach to regulating these technologies so that those who are lagging behind can benefit from those who have made strides in coming up with regulatory frameworks."
Due to its ever-changing nature, the absence of clear definition(s) in order to concretise measures for regulating it, have proven to be an ongoing challenge. The challenge is so vast, that the idea of regulation itself is extremely complex. What is evident and inevitable is that we are living in a time of grasping the realties in the absence of clear guidelines. Big data has been the next best thing and the assessment is that the benefits outweigh the odds.
On analysis , what is driving the spike in interest is the fact that Africa is a very young continent. According to www.worldmeters.info , the median age is 18.8 years. This is significant as it also point to the voting age of the electorate. In 2024, Election Management Bodies (EMB’s) in 19 African countries are scheduled to conduct a series of elections. The heartbeat of all elections centres around the people, political parties and their campaigns. Within this, the questions which drives the debate is what is AI and what are modern political campaigns? The topic of evolution of technology becomes critical. Voter apathy over the years in different countries is on the rise, and the hope or desire is that AI can enable, more especially, political party engagement and EMB with the public sphere to use periods between election seasons to capitalise on collection of data.
The elements and building blocks of creating AI that speaks and works with nuances of the local context are also critical. In order to build trust and a mechanism for success, AI technologies have to take into consideration the language and culturally specific norms of where they are deployed. In the absence of this, investment in civic education and literacy towards understanding, appreciating, and using AI falls short of being impactful. The European laws on AI and cybersecurity are already benchmarked at the forefront of building on the regulatory framework. Standardisation is the first step, followed by localising the context to match the environment of the country. However, there is a dependency on having political will at the helm to make this work without fear of a surveillance state. As a continent, Africa cannot afford to be left behind as the world moves more towards alignment. A first point of reference may be to look at the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance. This may provide the arena to enforce compliance to countries that are signatories and have further gone on to adopt, ratify, and domesticate the laws into practice.
Unfortunately, elections, at times, serve as a hotbed of contention. The conduct of political players in their campaigns during election periods has the inevitable danger of compromising an entire electoral process, especially in repressive regimes. The digital pace has provided a platform for adapting campaigns to suit different audiences but has also introduced gaps in codes of conduct for a fair playing ground and the use of disinformation and misinformation. Used responsibly, the work and advantages of AI will provide alternatives and broader access to information, complementing the electoral process. It will also be a task to ensure that AI reaches those civic spaces that go beyond what is already accessible and visible to ensure buy-in and interaction.
To deny or avoid the fact that AI is and continues to revolutionise our way of being will fall short of keeping up with what is already taking place around the world. What is critical is how the necessary measures, guidelines, and protections are in place to build ethical, safe, and secure digital and trusted futures. Elections are a critical component of expressions of democracy and the will of the people. Technology will continue to evolve, and digital literacy is now at the forefront of mechanising the world as we knew it.