In a review of news articles on the topic of drones and electoral security, cases of elections in four countries have been reported – India, Haiti, Nigeria, and Ghana. The elections were held during 2014, 2015, and 2016 suggesting that the use of drones as electoral security tools is in a leading-edge phase. The purpose of this analysis is to put forward the findings thus far on these three cases, the applications where drones can be employed, and the limitations on their use.
In December 2014, Israeli-built Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicles were deployed, under the control of the Indian Air Force and Army, for surveillance over “hot spot” locations in the Kashmir Valley. These Herons were deployed along with Indian-built mini-drones. Drones were deployed weeks before Election Day and remained active until sensitive voting equipment was retrieved from the polling stations to the local counting centres. The exact number of drones employed was classified and coordinated through the Joint Control Room operated and staffed by the military and police.
The two types of drones were deployed for different surveillance purposes. The Herons can fly for several hours at high altitudes and were used to broadly survey a given geographical area; while the mini-drones were dispatched in response to specific incidents that were reported for real-time images on the ground. The mini-drone range was five kilometers and can fly for an hour.
Communications among security forces was done on WhatsApp, so that radio communications, could have been intercepted by perpetrators of violence, were not used.
In October 2015, drones were deployed for the surveillance of elections conducted in Bihar State. In this locale, the perpetrators of electoral violence are said to be Maoist insurgents and criminals. The lack of roads makes physical police responses difficult to achieve in a timely manner. As a result, the drones in this case were employed as deterrents, that is, the perpetrators would be made aware that they are being tracked and videoed and could be targets for subsequent actions. These drones flew 1,500 meters above the ground, out of range for an AK-47 at 500 meters.
For the August and October 2015 elections in Haiti, mini-drones were employed to survey polling stations on Election Day in hot spot locations. These drones were operated, along with cameras around certain polling stations, by two private firms – Sonergy SA and Acces Haiti. These firms will process and analyze the data received through this automated surveillance technology. The Haitian National Police (PNH) were responsible for managing the drone deployments.
For the September 2016 Edo State gubernatorial election in Nigeria, the Nigeria Army deployed drones across the state. The initiative was organized in collaboration with the Nigeria Police, Department of State Security, and the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps. The drones were employed to provide aerial surveillance in 18 local government areas and intended to document incidents of violence. The use of drones was also intended as a confidence building measure, as Brigadier-General Raji Benbela stated, “with a view to giving the electorates the confidence to exercise their franchise”.
For the November 2016 elections in Ghana, the government deployed drones to provide border security monitoring. There were reports of cross-border, illegal trafficking of firearms and ammunition into the country for possible electoral purposes. The drones were employed to identify these shipments so that these could be officially seized within Ghana.
Uses and Parameters
From these examples, the following uses and parameters can be identified. First, drones have been employed in each phase of the electoral cycle – pre-election, Election Day, and post-election. The higher altitude drones are used for long distance and long hour surveillance, whereas mini-drones are used to examine specific locations, incidents, and activities in response to reports. Drones have been deployed weeks ahead of the voting over locations to be employed as polling stations on Election Day. Drones have been used for monitoring borders in search of illicit election related activities. The drones are used to survey crowds of people and their movements to and from polling stations. They are also being used to track the vehicles carrying voting equipment to tabulation facilities. Drones have been used as deterrents, creating a tool for accountability for the perpetrators and potentially inhibiting their acts that they would not have recorded on video. And, drones have been indirectly intended as confidence-building measures in the integrity of the election. With these uses noted, there remains to be completed a more thorough evaluation of their effectiveness in preventing or reducing electoral violence; and securing electoral stakeholders, facilities, and sensitive materials.
The use of drones to monitor political rallies has not yet reported, though these are also events vulnerable to electoral violence. Because of the political dimension to the surveillance of such activities, protocols must be established in advance so that this does not appear to be an intimidation tactic against the political opposition.