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Tense wait in Kenya as electronic vote tally fails

The expensive new counting system was designed to avoid the vote rigging allegations that led to violence after the country's 2007 election. But when it failed Wednesday, a hand count began.

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An unidentified man walks past stacked ballot boxes waiting to have their votes tallied, at a vote tallying center in Nairobi, Kenya, Tuesday.

Ben Curtis/AP

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Counting of ballots from Kenya’s contentious presidential election was abandoned and restarted manually Wednesday after an expensive new electronic system failed. 

More than half of the estimated 10 million votes had already been provisionally tallied since polls closed on Monday, giving Uhuru Kenyatta an 11 percent lead in the presidential race over his main rival, Raila Odinga

The country, spellbound by the contest, was asked to dig deeper into its collective patience, however, when a server at the electoral commission crashed and its software could not be rebooted. The glitch postponed the results, which are now expected Friday. 

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Delays announcing the outcome of Kenya’s last elections, in 2007, led to allegations of vote rigging that sparked weeks of violence and left 1,100 people dead. 

“People are saying that there could be something wrong, but for now they still trust that we can finish this thing without any problems,” says George Ondu, a community activist in Kenya’s western city of Kisumu, an Odinga stronghold. 

“It’s still calm. No one is protesting,” says Fred Simiyu, a Catholic bishop from Kitale, an agricultural town close to Kenya’s border with Uganda

Kenya remains under intense international pressure to avoid the alleged rigging that marred its last polls.  

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For this election, a new system was developed to transmit results electronically directly from each of the 33,400 polling stations countrywide to the national tally center in Nairobi. Local election officials were given mobile phones to transmit results using software designed to communicate only with a central server, which was supposed to upload all the results to one database that the public could see. 

But by late Tuesday, electoral officials had switched it off. 

Instead, returning officers from all 290 constituencies were ordered to hurry to Nairobi, the capital, physically carrying the forms that tallied the votes in their polling centers. These are now being collated at the national level. 

But legal challenges to the result are now likely because of the large number of rejected ballots, an estimated 6 percent of the total cast. 

Odinga's running mate, Kalonzo Musyoka, said yesterday that the number of rejected ballots was "worrying" and technical arguments on whether they should be included in final total tallies are consuming the increasingly chaotic count process. Some have already compared the debate about the rejected ballots to the controversy over Florida's "hanging chads" in the US presidential contest in 2000. 

Before the electronic system failed, Mr. Kenyatta led Mr. Odinga by 53 percent of votes to 42 percent in the provisional results. 

However, including the rejected ballots in the count could pull Kenyatta's total below the absolute majority needed to win without a runoff. 

Kenyatta’s coalition, the Jubilee Alliance, said Wednesday that Britain’s high commissioner – its diplomatic envoy to Kenya – was meddling in the elections in a “shadowy, suspicious” manner over the rejected ballots. 

Christian Turner, the commissioner, was “canvassing to have rejected votes tallied in an attempt to deny the Jubilee Coalition outright victory,” said Charity Ngilu, Kenyatta’s coalition partner, at a press conference.

“The Jubilee Alliance is deeply concerned about the shadowy, suspicious and rather animated involvement of the British High Commissioner … in Kenya’s election,” she said. 

Britain denies the allegations. 

“Claims of British interference, including by the High Commission, in the electoral process are entirely false and misleading,” said a spokesman from the Foreign Office in London in a statement. 

“The UK does not have a position on the question of how to handle the rejected votes.  That is for the [Kenyan electoral commission], and if necessary Kenyan courts, to determine.”

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