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May 8, 2021

Electronic voting machines: Use of prohibitively costly EVMs may cause more controversies

ISLAMABAD: The electronic voting machines (EVMs) being presented as the ideal solution to election rigging, disputes over results and other poll-related controversies, are going to cost more than Rs100 billion. But despite this huge expense, they are unlikely to be the solution to ending electoral disputes and controversies, experts believe.

Experts raise serious questions about the transparency and credibility of elections conducted through EVMs and believe that their deployment could make the electoral process more open to manipulation and tampering.

Prime Minister Imran Khan is an aggressive advocate for the EVMs and wants to procure them for the next general elections at all costs, ignoring the equally forceful rejection by most opposition parties. Before any across-the-board political consensus is reached on the issue, the government is set to promulgate an ordinance to the effect.

Meanwhile, the opinion of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), that is considered the most critical of all, has still not been forcefully articulated publicly. After all, it is the ECP that is going to have control over the use of the EVMs if they are ever introduced.

“How will a project that has been envisaged to do away with all kinds of election-related controversies end them when even the mere official talk of its creation has attracted immense opposition from political parties-- the real stakeholders who kick up dust over the credibility of the elections,” President Parliamentary Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat) Ahmed Bilal Mehboob told The News when contacted. “The most difficult task is to restore people’s confidence in the EVMs before going for them, otherwise more controversies will be spawned.”

He describes the entire idea as redundant and says it would lead to the wastage of a huge amount of money. “It will not solve the unique problem of changing the results but will rather produce new issues and worsen the disputes pertaining to pre- and post-election activities. “The powerful influence the polls before and during their holding, something that the EVMs can’t prevent. Even the more simple technology of the Result Transmission System (RTS) was believed to have been purposely rendered non-functional in the 2018 general elections.”

Former Secretary ECP Kanwar Dilshad told this correspondent that serious questions about the transparency of the elections under the EVM system would crop up. “In a country like ours that has a high rate of illiteracy and non-availability of electricity to thousands of villages and uninterrupted supply of power even to urban areas, the EVMs will not be able to function. Having these machines is a bad idea unless comprehensive preparations are done in advance. But the government seems to be in a rush for unexplained reasons.”

The Pildat chief says it was also claimed that exploitation of the EVMs would be easy by changing its programming, installing chips in them etc. The most pertinent question these tools raise is the transparency of the elections, he said.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob says there were also other problems like the lack of staff training, dust-proof storage facilities for the EVMs etc. No such preparations have so far been made but the government wants to have the EVMs in any case, he said, adding that importantly, the extremes of Pakistan’s temperatures will be another issue to be reckoned with.

He estimates that an amount of approximately Rs120 billion will be required to have nearly 350,000 EVMs up and running. The manufacture of such a massive number of machines would be an uphill task to achieve, he said. It is incomprehensible why the government is in such a hurry to have the EVMs come what may when all the political parties are vehemently rejecting the proposal, he adds.

The Pildat chief says India took 22 years to introduce EVMs. It used these machines for the first time in Kerala in 1982. The success of EVMs in India prompted many in Pakistan to give exaggerated credit to the EVMs for the conduct of the relatively less controversial Indian elections.

Kanwar Dilshad says that the ownership of the EVM project has to be taken by the ECP, which is possible only if it gets the lead role. “It should be the ECP that should get the EVMs manufactured. In our case, the government has initially assigned the task to the ministry of science and technology, which is not acceptable.”

He says that a week ago, he sent a 15-page report on EVMs to the president of Pakistan, the speaker, the chief of the army staff and others, explaining the whole concept and its feasibility. He had also visited India back in 2010 and met election commission officials to study the EVM system. He says he was told by Pakistan high commission officials that the EVMs could be interfered with by installing chips in them.

The former ECP secretary says that in case of post-election disputes, the poll material, including ballot papers, are produced before the tribunals or courts if and when required. However, no such material will be available in case of the use of EVMs because it will essentially be a paperless exercise.

Kanwar Dilshad says that India spent more than two decades to finally use the EVMs in a nationwide election. “On the other hand, we seem to be in a big a hurry as if we want to achieve a target at all costs by introducing EVMs in the general elections. This kind of indecent haste is creating suspicions about the very intentions of the government rather than showing its sincerity about the use of the EVMs.”

Meanwhile, tTwo experts, serving in departments under the federal science and technology ministry, say that election results will be available in minutes after the close of polling if electronic voting machines (EVMs) are used in the polls.

They say that the EVMs will ensure the transparency and accuracy of the vote count as well as speedy polling unlike paper-based balloting which consumes a lot of time, inconveniencing the voters. They say voting on EVMs is very easy – all one needs to do is press the designated spot on the machine.

Dr. Kamran Lateef, Principal Research Officer, National Institute of Electronics, and Ahsan Malik, Head of the Research and Development Labs, COMSATS University, are part of a team of experts engaged in indigenously developing EVMs for their subsequent mass production so they can be utilised in general elections.

During separate conversations with The News, both experts refused to name other members of the government team saying that their identity is classified.

One of them said that their effort is to keep the price of an EVM under Rs100,000. He said that its international selling price is Rs1m/Rs.8m. Some private sector players are also working on the development of EVMs to compete with the government.

Dr. Kamran Lateef said automation was being introduced worldwide and Pakistan can’t escape it. One day, it has to do it too, he said.

To a question about the possibility of tampering with the EVMs, he said that there were no two opinions about manipulation if the man behind the machine and system was dishonest and deceitful.

Dr. Kamran Lateef said that the use of EVMs ensures that not a single vote is wasted. He said question marks were initially raised on the use of EVMs in India because no printouts were available of the votes cast. The problem was later overcome.

Ahsan Malik told The News that there would be dedicated control over the EVMs as in the case of every mobile phone, refrigerator, freezer etc. The programming of the EVMs cannot be tampered with by any external element and there will be no issue of transparency of the electoral process, he said.

He said that the model of the machine on which the team is working on would also drop a printout in the nearby ballot box after a voter exercises his right. Thus, a digital record of the votes would be available in the EVM while the manual record would be in the ballot box, he said, adding that these types of machines were being used in Estonia. Ahsan Malik said that in Ireland, voters had rejected the EVMs because they did not believe that their votes had actually been cast as they were not getting anything as proof.

Ahsan Malik said in case of any dispute, the digital and manual records could be compared and tallied. The identity of the voter will remain secure and the election result would be available from the EVMs within seconds.

He said another option was that voters could be issued digital receipts or printouts from the EVMs with passwords that they can use later to check on the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) website whether the candidates they voted for actually got their vote. This would be possible after the ECP uploads the data of all the EVMs in its central databank. About the life of the EVMs, he said the effort is that they remain in use for four to five general elections.

Ahsan Malik said that since the EVMs would not be linked to the internet, the chances of their being hacked or intruded would be non-existent. It is yet to be sorted out with the National Database & Registration Authority (Nadra) whether it would be able to upload offline data of voters on the EVMs. Naturally, an EVM to be used for a specific polling booth would have the data of only those voters who have been given this point by the ECP for casting their votes, Ahsan Malik said.

After the development of the prototype, the ECP, which is the end user, will be given demos about the machines. The mass production of EVMs will be done only after the ECP’s nod.