Going electronic?

October 10, 2021

The PTI is planning to use electronic voting machines for the next general elections. But without the necessary political consensus and risk assessment, as rights groups point out, there may be greater political and electoral controversies

Going electronic?

The notion of holding the next general elections electronically has stirred up a lot of debate between the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and opposition parties.

The opposition parties consider the plan to hold next elections using electronic voting machines (EVM) a bad idea; rather a scheme to rig the polls, while the government accuses the opposition of not embracing change and modern technology for transparent voting. The civil society groups engaged in the process consider the government’s plan somewhat hasty, without proper homework and lacking necessary engagement with stakeholders.

Earlier this year, the PTI had already started hinting at the use of EVMs in the next polls as part of the broader electoral reforms. An ordinance was also passed a few months back to procure EVMs. The ordinance required the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to procure EVMs and to enable the overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right to vote in the next general elections while staying in their country of residence.

The ECP, the constitutional body with the mandate to conduct elections too raised objections to the use of electronic voting machine. In a report submitted to the Senate’s Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs, the ECP declared EVMs to be “tamper-prone” citing concerns that the software could easily be manipulated. The ECP also added that switching to the new process would be a time-consuming task, saying that it would be difficult to switch to the electronic system completely – at least for the next general polls. The body flagged the lack of ballot secrecy, of capacity at all levels and that of ensuring security and chain of custody for the machines at rest and during transportation and involves many teschenites that required skilled staff and understandings. The ECP claimed that Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy and Finland had abandoned the use of EVM due to “lack of security”.

“A person who can hack the locally manufactured electronic voting machines (EVM) will get Rs 1 million”, said Shibli Faraz, the federal minister for science and technology recently, while dismissing the ECP objections. He said that the ECP was putting itself in a “controversial position” by raising such objections.

“Everybody is dismissing the idea of EVM and the government is insisting to use it anyway. This indicates that they want to use the technology to rig the next elections,” says Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader, vowing to “oppose this plan at all forums”. He endorses the ECP concern that the data of the EVM can be tempered easily to ‘yield desired results’. For another major opposition party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the EVM plan is a ‘conspiracy’. The government wants to manage the next polls and distort the image of the ECP before that, says Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar of the PPP. He urges all civil society groups to support the ECP for rule of law and transparent elections in the future.

Ideally, the plan to hold the elections using EVMs needs the stamp of the parliament and a broad political consensus to avoid controversy. Earlier, in 2017, despite differences and fragmentation, political parties had developed a consensus on electoral reforms and the parliament had passed it. However, the ruling party appears to be taking a solo flight on this important matter. Despite strong opposition, the government appears determined to use the EVMs. To this end, it plans to bring a law and is calling a joint session of the parliament in coming days. A special committee comprising members of all parliamentary parties has also been proposed to be set up to discuss the EVM issues, though the notification has not been issued yet.

Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), a major rights group working on electoral reforms, has urged the government to fulfil prerequisites for introduction of EVM. They feel that the plan lacks the necessary political consensus among the parties represented in parliament and government is trying to avoid debate on risk assessments before introducing the electronic voting system.

Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), a major rights group working on electoral reforms, had earlier, urged the government to hold a referendum on the introduction of EVM and list proportional representation system. “Notwithstanding the importance of technology in inculcating efficiency, transparency, and uniformity of the electoral process, the introduction of EVMs and biometrics is a significant shift. It should not be introduced without a more extended public and political discourse,” stated FAFEN in response to the ordinance allowing procurement of the EVMs.

“It appears to be a hasty plan without a consensus. Also, the idea does not seem foolproof and has room for manipulation of results,” says Ahmed Bilal Mehboob of Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT). He thinks the remaining time is too short for procurement and testing of EVM for the next elections.

The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]        Twitter: @waqargillani

Going electronic?