ISLAMABAD: The long-awaited Elections Act, 2017, commonly known electoral reforms bill, is in parliament for legislation. However, experts believe that some new provisions of the bill might complicate election system rather than simplifying it.
These provisions are related to result count, use of expired identity cards for polling, provision of contestant’s agents with photographed electoral rolls, deployment of one returning officer (RO) in each constituency and extension of poling time.
Counting of tendered votes
In the new laws, it has been proposed that tendered votes (vote of a person representing himself to be a genuine voter when another person has already poled vote under his name) will be counted during the counting process, albeit separately. Some safe guards and penalties have been proposed against those who would be impersonating and casting fake votes.
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Election experts believe that addition of tendered votes to the vote count could create a mess. Those impersonating are smart enough and use every tactic to get away with the fraud.
The method proposed to verify identify of fakers is verification of thumb impressions of such voters through the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). The vote audit of 2013 general election showed that NADRA’s system had failed to read most of the thumb impressions.
Some reports suggest impersonators used novel methods like applying certain lubricants to their thumbs before going to polling station. This dilutes indelible ink marks on paper and the thumb impression which should stay readable for a long time, fades within hours.
Depending on its size, normally there are 200 to 300 polling stations in a constituency with around 500 to 800 polling booths. If some organised group or party manages to poll only 5 to 10 tendered votes at each polling booth, thousands of such votes can be polled in a constituency.
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The proposed law provides that tendered ballot papers would be kept in separate bags and counted separately before the thumb impression would be sent to NADRA for verification.
Till NADRA sends back results of thumb verification, the final results will be on hold. In case thousands of such incidents of tendered voting take place in different constituencies, it would take NADRA a long time to analyse them due to its limited capacity.
And if still it fails to properly identify tendered voters, it would jeopardise the whole election exercise.
When the proposal allowing tendered vote was under discussion in the sub-penal of parliamentary committee on electoral reforms, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) representatives had raised serious objections to it. But members of the penal overruled that.
Challenge of voters’ provision
In section 86 of the bill, there is a provision that polling agents can challenge a voter if he thinks that the person has already voted at the same or some other polling station or he is not the original person whose name is entered in the electoral roll.
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Presiding officer would still issue any such person ballot paper after getting his/her details. These votes would also be counted separately. Verification of such voters would be conducted afterwards like tendered voters.
Recount if win margin is less than 5%
Another new provision that can cause unnecessary delay in compiling of results is the option given to contesting candidates to file an application with returning officer for a recount in case margin of victory is less than 5% of the total votes polled in the constituency or ten thousand votes.
In the recent elections, the margin had been less than 10,000 in most constituencies. This means in almost every other constituency the losing candidates would be going for a recount which would ultimately delay compiling of final results.
Expired CNIC acceptable
The proposed laws also allow use of expired computerised national identity cards (CNICs) to cast vote. Many people still possess CNICs when NADRA had not started taking fingerprints of applicants. It will be impossible to verify such voters if their thumb impressions are sent to NADRA.
Similarly another provision reads: “Failure of a voter to prove his identity through the new technology under this subsection shall not disentitle him to cast his vote if he is otherwise entitled so to do under this section.” This means in case a biometric machine does not verify a person, he will still cast the vote.
Less than 10% participation by women
The proposed law stipulates that if turnout of women voters is less than 10% of the total votes polled in a constituency, then the ECP will presume that women voters were restrained under an agreement from casting votes and it may declare the result void calling re-poll.
Some people believe the condition is too strict. The law is also silent as to what will be the fate of polls if less than 10% women cast votes in subsequent polls also.
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Photographed electoral rolls
Every candidate or their election agents will be provided copy of electoral rolls having photographs of every voter including the women voters. Many sections of society will object to the provision as conservative segments will have strong reservations to it.
Extending polling time
Under the new law, the RO would be allowed to extend time of polling only if he/she conveys the request and gets permission from the ECP at least 3 hours before the scheduled time of close of polling.
This will create problems in case the ROs would not be able to increase polling time if he is informed the need for that by presiding officer less than three hours before the closing time.
One RO per constituency
Once the new law is passed, there will be one RO for every constituency which means for every National Assembly and provincial assembly seat there will be a separate RO. Earlier, there was one RO for NA and all the provincial assembly constituencies coming under it.
The new proposal will segregate work and is likely to create confusion since the polling staff will now be following different bosses.
Similarly, in case of complaints of violations of code of conduct by candidates or their supporters, these ROs will keep on shifting responsibility on each other as in most cases, NA and PA candidates run campaigns jointly.