September 14, 2017 / 4:05 PM / 2 years ago

Chaos and glitches: Covering Kenya's disputed election

A round-the-clock vigil at the official tallying station, spot checks on the vote count at local polling centers and an encounter with a 102-year-old woman who stood in a queue overnight to be the first in line to cast her ballot all formed part of Reuters’ reporting on Kenya’s disputed election in August.

People queue outside a polling station to cast their vote during the presidential election in the city centre in Nairobi, Kenya, August 8, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

As Kenya geared up for its historic election, the Reuters team in Nairobi devised a comprehensive strategy to provide fast and accurate election coverage. Our journalists who had been schooled by contested elections in 2007 and 2013 were keenly aware that the Aug. 8 election would play out against a backdrop of potential violence and allegations of fraud.

“Kenya has a history of heavily problematic elections,” says Nairobi bureau chief Katharine Houreld. “So every Kenyan wanted to understand the electoral process. Everybody needed to know how exactly it was going to work - because that meant the difference between safety and needing to flee for your life.”

Reuters reporters spent hours talking to the election board ahead of time to understand how the electronic vote tallying system worked and attended a simulation exercise that was supposed to demonstrate that the machines could be relied on produce accurate vote results.

That test session tipped media off to potential problems ahead: all candidates were supposed to receive the same number of votes when four machines transmitted results. But the totals varied slightly, which the election board blamed on “typos” in the tally sheets that were fed. This suggested that there could be errors in the vote count.

Reuters negotiated access to the electoral board’s free API feed, which showed electronic vote results and updated the official election website. As a backup in case the website failed, Reuters also opted to have at least one reporter – often two – around the clock at the national tallying center to monitor in the results in person.

The election aftermath quickly turned chaotic as polls closed and results flooded in. The election results website froze for around 90 minutes and again for 40 minutes, leaving journalists scrambling for updates.

Many journalists could not get into the main tally center because of the chaotic security procedures, so Reuters correspondent John Ndiso, who was inside, stayed put, while the bureau tried to get other correspondents allowed in. They were allowed in after several hours.

Results were announced by polling stations rather than constituencies as initially promised, adding to the confusion of the night since it meant one of steps outlined in the election law had been skipped.

Reuters sent news alerts to the world on the results based on the count displayed on the website at the main tallying center. Along the way, it also told the tale of Kenyans who beat the odds to vote – and even rented babies to go to the front of the voting queue, thus skipping long lines.

The next day, opposition leader Raila Odinga rejected the tally showing President Uhuru Kenyatta ahead, saying it was rigged. He offered no proof, and the commission stood by its numbers that gave the president a lead with nearly 1.4 million votes.

The allegations prompted Reuters to make spot checks on whether the vote count posted on the website for each polling station matched those on the scanned copy of the station’s tally sheet, also called Form 34A. Reuters reporters in Nairobi and London checked the figures for ten polling stations for each of Kenya’s 47 counties.

Reuters found some small discrepancies. However, the checks soon proved difficult to conduct: the proper forms were not posted online as promised for the majority of polling stations that reporters checked, resulting in the sample size being too small to say what the effect of the discrepancies might be, or whether the missing forms might have larger discrepancies.

The next day there were more claims of rigging. To check those claims, Reuters showed the logs to three computer experts, who said they did not confirm a hacking.

On Friday, the election board announced Kenyatta had officially won. The opposition immediately rejected the result. (A Reuters spot check again showed many polling stations still didn’t have their forms online.)

Reuters continued to report on claims of rigging, protests and a police crackdown. Under huge international pressure, the opposition eventually turned to the courts. In a surprise ruling, the new chief justice ruled the discrepancies in the forms justified re-running the election, marking the first time a court had annulled the reelection of a president in Africa.

Reuters will once again deploy a multimedia team that looks closely at the electoral process when Kenyans return to the polls on Oct. 17. The annulled vote underscores the importance of knowing the intricacies of the vote counting to inform our reporting.

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