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September 2, 2018



September 2, 2018

For the first time in our history, the right to vote has been extended to overseas Pakistanis. Beginning Saturday, expatriates will be able to register to vote online and will be able to cast votes in the upcoming by-elections. It is estimated that at least 700,000 overseas Pakistanis are now eligible to vote on the direction of the Supreme Court. There is some debate about the wisdom of this move. Many of the overseas Pakistanis are students or are temporarily living abroad and giving them the right to vote makes sense. Others, however, are dual nationals who are unlikely to ever move back to Pakistan and have little investment in the country. Allowing them to have a say in choosing our representatives will be more controversial. In general, we should be making it easier for all Pakistanis, especially those living at home, to cast their ballot. Many citizens move within the country to work and are unable to return to their hometowns to vote. Apart from exceptions for public officials, such people are not allowed to mail in postal ballots. Voting needs to be treated as a right rather than a privilege and steps should be taken to allow everyone equal access to the ballot box.

Even those who agree in principle with allowing overseas Pakistanis to vote should be worried about security. All overseas votes will be cast online, creating legitimate fears about interference. The performance of the Election Commission of Pakistan and Nadra during the election, when its RTS system failed, does not inspire confidence in the ability of the authorities to safeguard the process. It is a golden rule of technology that there is no such thing as an unhackable system. Critical online infrastructure of countries that are far more technologically-advanced than us have been breached regularly. Even those few countries that previously permitted online voting are now reconsidering the decision. It would be more prudent to allow for postal ballots that leave a written record of votes that can be checked if there are any fears about manipulation. The by-elections should serve as a good trial run to identify any problems in the system and fine-tune the process before the next general elections. The impulse behind the move to allow overseas Pakistanis to vote is positive but we now need to ensure that good intentions are not spoiled by poor execution.

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