Monday September 27, 2021

Govt keenness to introduce: EVM to remain unfulfilled without legal backup

March 26, 2021

ISLAMABAD: The federal government’s enthusiasm to introduce electronic voting machines (EVMs) in elections will remain a mere slogan in the absence of a new law — possible only in collaboration with the opposition parties given the numbers in parliament.

The opposition has dismissed the official proposal on the grounds that the EVMs would turn out to be another controversial tool— like the Result Transmission System (RTS) that malfunctioned in the 2018 general elections creating serious doubts about the authenticity of the entire electoral process. The opposition insists that the EVMs lack transparency, a point that has also been pointed out by independent observers.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has instructed Parliamentary Affairs Advisor Babar Awan to promptly finalise the groundwork for the introduction of EVMs and the grant of voting rights to overseas Pakistanis. The advisor is currently holding meetings with the relevant institutions to achieve the desired objective.

Section 103 of the Elections Act, 2017 says the “Election Commission of Pakistan may conduct pilot projects for the utilisation of electronic voting machines and the biometric verification system in by-elections in addition to the existing manual procedures for voter verification, casting and counting of votes to assess the technical efficacy, secrecy, security and financial feasibility of the electronic voting machines and biometric verification system and will share the results with the government, which will lay them in parliament.”

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), which works on anti-corruption issues and electoral laws and management, has concluded that there is no clear answer to which voting, counting and results process is best – manual, mechanical or electronic – since all three have their unique uses and advantages and every country has its own distinct circumstances.

Looking at the benefits and drawbacks of EVM technology, a broad range of stakeholders should carefully consider the cost to the nation and risks involved in a disputed election process before making a decision on using EVMs, the IFES said.

It said it is critical to conduct a comprehensive pilot project in different environments and at different levels (urban, rural and the most remote areas) before making a decision. Organising hacking competitions where computer scientists and other interested parties are invited to find external vulnerabilities in the EVM to test the system is also a good exercise. Apart from the financial implications, the outcome of a pilot project should take into consideration the stakeholders’ trust and input.

Talking about the drawbacks, the IFES said the EVM is not an instant solution for improving the electoral process. An EVM machine takes input from voters and produces outputs in a way that cannot be witnessed by external observers and election administrators. This is a potential problem for ensuring transparency, trust and integrity. The introduction of a voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) has tried to address this issue, but not without involving the use of paper to verify the electronic votes —contradicting the very purpose of making it a paperless exercise.

The IFES said the defining challenge in the design of EVMs is to reconcile the competing requirements of the transparency of the process and the secrecy of the vote. Only a few technical experts can understand the mechanics of EVM; for non-experts, it is an opaque system that cannot be fully observed. By contrast, a paper balloting system is more transparent and tangible for stakeholders who do not have a technical background. Critics cite lack of transparency as a major reason that people in many countries are pushing back against the use of EVMs.

According to the IFES, the stakeholder’s trust is strongly linked to transparency. It is notoriously difficult to build trust in EVMs, as their operations are not easy to scrutinise and the machines have limitations and can be misused. Hence, the introduction of EVM is only recommended once there is proven and enduring trust in the system.

The IFES said “it is vital to keep EVM equipment in secure storage to counter the perception and reality that the equipment could be tampered with. Vendors provide support for maintenance, upgrades, configuration and reconfiguration in the period between elections, which creates the possibility for fraud. Dependence on vendors can be avoided by developing the capacity within the election management body (EMB) to conduct these tasks, but this requires significant technical training of EMB staff. This independent capacity can only be built over the course of several elections.”

There is also a dire need for the EMB to be aware of any environmental conditions that are required when storing the EVMs, as the equipment may be sensitive to extreme temperature and humidity, or may require a dust free environment. Storage conditions are especially challenging in very hot countries, in terms of cost and availability, where extreme heat may degrade the reliability of the equipment, the IFES said.

About the financial consideration, the IFES said the expected life span of an EVM is around 20 years, which means it can be used in several election cycles at both national and local levels. The initial investment cost should be considered in this light. However, EVMs require safe storage between elections and considerable maintenance (battery charging/replacement) and configuration (testing and upload of election specific ballot configuration depending on constituency). This combined overall cost can be compared against the cost of printing physical ballot papers and the associated need for ballot boxes. “Considering the increasing demand for VVPAT as a vital transparency measure, any potential cost saving through abolishment of paper ballot and ballot boxes is largely swallowed up by the procurement, storage, maintenance and configuration cost of the EVM.”

The IFES said the EVMs are computers, which run software, and the votes cast using an EVM are stored in a safe storage or space in the computer’s memory. All software carries the risk of malfunction or manipulation. The time gap between voting and the counting of votes makes the process vulnerable to hacking and manipulation. The chance of tampering increases as the time gap increases.