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February 14, 2017

Voting from home


February 14, 2017

In 1997, David Wolf became the first human to vote from space. This was made possible by Rule 81.35 of the Texas legislature which outlines the technical procedures enabling astronauts to cast their vote even while orbiting in space.

The process is simple: Mission control sends astronauts an encrypted email with an absentee ballot inside. Astronauts fill it out and email it back to the control centre from where it is sent to the election officials in Houston. Surprisingly, in another part of the same globe, a nuclear state has not been able to figure out how a citizen can get his/her polling address changed without undertaking tedious bureaucratic hassles of visiting Election Commission offices, filling forms and appending photocopies.

Pakistan refuses to reform its ineffective and outdated electoral system. In the 2008 general election, among the 81.2 million registered voters, 37 million were either ghost voters or voters registered without any authentic proof of identity. Balochistan topped the list with 65 percent bogus votes.

The 2013 election was marred by devastating allegations, court cases and public protests over complaints of bogus votes and rigging. Countless seminars, speeches and parliamentary promises to reform the electoral system have failed to create any impact. The 2018 election is likely to be a messy replay of its earlier predecessors.

Pakistan ought to treat its existing electoral system with the tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians. They strongly believed that “when you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount”. Why must we insist on spending over Rs5 billion and mustering over one million personnel each time we go to the polls? All this can be completely avoided if Pakistan were to adopt an e-voting system – where voting is done through mobile phones. Such a system could permanently bid farewell to polling stations, booths, polling officers, returning officers, security staff, conflicts and quarrels, bogus voting, miscounting, tampering, allegations, court cases and a host of other problems associated with conventional voting.

There are four essential steps in a mobile phone electoral system - voter registration, vote casting, vote confirmation and computer processed results. The registration process typically begins about six months before an election. The Election Commission sends an SMS to every eligible voter –on a verified SIM – stating his/her polling address. The voter responds by confirming the address as either ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’. If confirmed as ‘correct’ the individual receives a return SMS confirming the voter’s registration. Simultaneously any other SIM, if registered on the same CNIC is disabled for the purposes of casting a vote. This step helps to finalise the name, CNIC, polling address and a Nadra-verified SIM for each eligible voter.

In situations where the polling address was either incorrect or required a change, an individual can send the CNIC and the correct address to the Election Commission by using a short SMS code – such as 8400. There should be no need to visit any office or fill any form. If required, the local ECP office may verify the correctness of the address by a visit or a phone call. In case of any correction, the ECP would repeat the above-mentioned steps.

The actual voting process may be spread over 20-30 days. Voters can vote any time during this period by sending a short SMS along with their CNIC number. In case the CNIC and the SIM match with the ones used for registration, the voter receives a set of provincial assembly options. These ought to be responded to within 24 hours by simply replying with the serial number of the chosen candidate – say 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. Next, the voter receives a similar SMS for National Assembly options. Once completed, the voter is sent an SMS that contains a five-digit secret code. This code must be saved separately and deleted from the phone.

The third step involves the verification of voters. After 3-10 days of casting a vote, each voter receives an SMS that requires to be responded to by stating the secret code sent earlier by the ECP. If the voter responds by stating the correct code, he/she receives a final SMS confirming that the vote has been cast and counted.

By the year 2018, Pakistan is expected to have about 105 million eligible voters and about 160 million mobile connections. The mobile phone voting system could act as a game changer. In one stroke it could demolish considerations such as ‘biradari’, ethnicity, ‘wadera’ influence, party pressure, bribes, low female turnout, access to polling stations and rigging. Pakistan is likely to gain little from its half-hearted efforts of overhauling its existing electoral system. With an approximately 80 percent cell-phone density, there may be little to explain our reluctance to revolutionary reforms.


The writer is a management systems
consultant and a freelance writer on
social issues.

Email: [email protected]



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