NA-133 bye-election: an opportunity to pilot EVM

Let people of the country have some sound data to decide the fate of EVM, i-Voting for the 2023 general elections


Sarwar Bari October 26, 2021
The writer is National Coordinator of Pattan Development Organisation and has served as head of FAFEN

Pervaiz Malik, an old stalwart of the PML-N and a member of the National Assembly, died on October 11. He was one of the longest serving members of Pakistan’s parliament. Since 1997, he won all elections with huge margins, except in 2018 when his margin of victory was significantly reduced. Under the law, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) should hold bye-election within sixty days of the seat getting vacated. Malik’s demise has created an opportunity to pilot the EVM and i-Voting scheme — a much delayed but highly publicised promise of the ECP, and a legal requirement.

Consider this: Since 2008, the ECP has prepared three strategic plans. The current strategic plan started in 2019 and will end in 2023. According to former CEC Sardar Muhammad Raza, the first two strategic plans “provided the strategic direction, discipline and commitment required to achieve a quantum leap in functional performance and organisational effectiveness”. Former ECP secretary Babar Yaqoob noted, “The development of the 3rd plan involved a detailed organisational assessment which included multi-tiered internal and external consultation.” The 3rd plan stands on 11 strategic pillars. And each pillar consists of four logical columns — strategic pillar, strategic goal, strategic action, and measurable indicators.

The document is available on the ECP website as well as in print form. The ECP must be appreciated for its transparency as it provides a detailed framework to assess its performance methodically. It is worth noting here that every constitutional body can [must] act within the framework of the law. Therefore, the ECP commitment made in its plan has legal backing and legal binding. The ECP is under the double burden of commitment and the law, making it accountable to the public within that framework.

For instance, Section 94 and Section 103 of the Elections Act, 2017 respectively call upon the ECP to use EVM and overseas voting mechanisms in bye-elections.

The opening sentence of the Strategic Pillar 8 is, “Considering the challenges of modern-day electoral management for an electorate of over 100 million has pushed the ECP to develop, pilot and deploy new technological solutions.” Moreover, Strategic Action 8.2.1 further elaborates the commitment of the ECP. It says, “Conduct more pilot tests of electoral technologies [i.e. EVM, BVM and Overseas Voting Mechanisms] to develop feasibility studies for operational and legal consideration by the Parliament and other relevant authorities.” Its measurable indicator is, “Feasibility reports developed by December 2021.”

On April 19, 2018, on the directions of the Supreme Court, the ECP constituted a taskforce to undertake the audit of the internet-based voting system. The taskforce submitted their report in almost five weeks. In short, the report cautioned about the significant risks of i-Voting and suggested gradual testing/piloting of other options such as end-to-end (ETE) verifiable voting. Subsequently, in August, the top court ordered the ECP to pilot i-Voting in the forthcoming 35 bye-elections, which took place on October 14, 2018.

At best, it was a reluctant and half-baked attempt with a horrible outcome as very few overseas citizens could register themselves due to last-minute changes in the registration process, time constraints, and lack of awareness and information. But among those who managed to register, 85% had cast their votes. It was 32% higher than the national average. It appears a large majority of overseas Pakistanis have a greater interest in democratic development than those who live in the country. Note: roughly 9 million Pakistanis live abroad.

The taskforce also noted that the ECP has “critical shortage of cybersecurity skills and expertise” and “strongly recommended to establish a dedicated and well-funded research and development cell at ECP”. As a way forward, the ECP taskforce report on i-Voting “anticipates that Internet voting will be a reality in the near future”.

Three years have passed since the publication of the i-Voting report, but reportedly the ECP has neither established the research and development cell at the election commission nor has it conducted any further pilots till date. The ECP has also ignored to fulfil its own Strategic Action 8.2.1.

The tale of piloting EVM is even worse. For a long time, the presence of the report of the first EVM piloting project remained a mystery. Those NGOs who impress donors by saying that they are very close to the ECP kept on arguing that the ECP had submitted the report to the government and the parliament. They never bothered to find the truth and continued telling lies on talk shows. This would not make sense to any sane person because if the ECP had uploaded the i-Voting pilot report as well as the taskforce report on its website, why did it treat the EVM pilot report differently? Why was/is it absent from the website? Isn’t it intriguing?

Salman Shabbir, an activist and IT expert residing in Australia, informed me on October 1 via WhatsApp that the ECP had responded to his RTI appeal and sent him the EVM pilot report. At the time of writing this piece, I scanned the ECP website, but could not find it. The readers however can get it at: https://opvoters.substack.com/p/letter-to-ecp-seeking-information?r=p9hag&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=

The core message/s of the report corroborates with the above-stated quotes from the Elections Act, 2017 and the ECP’s Strategic Plan. Here is a very interesting quote from the EVM pilot report: “It would be more appropriate and wiser to keep conducting multiple pilot projects in urban as well as rural areas by engaging all the voters of that constituency to make the overall system robust, speedy, reliable and accurate.” It also says, “The ECP is technologically progressive organisation which is striving to achieve goals by engaging all stakeholders.” Remember, this report was prepared four years ago on November 14, 2017.

I am in no way an ardent advocate of EVM at this stage, but I am an enthusiast of piloting EVM and i-Voting because it is an integral part of our election laws and the ECP’s Strategic Plan. It is an issue of compliance, thus, of governance. It is a matter of my (read public) trust in the ECP.

Besides EVM and i-Voting, every ruling party despite categorical promises and loud rhetoric didn’t hold local government elections. And when the Supreme Court directed them sternly, they give us powerless local systems. These two case studies tell the tale of the arrogance of our leaders and civil servants. Perhaps, they behave poorly due to a weak civil society that lacks the strategic vision, the skills to take collective action, and the ability to socially mobilise for holding officials accountable. This brief essay is just a humble step to that direction.

The bye-election in NA-133 is another opportunity for the ECP to prove its commitment to its own Strategic Plan by piloting the EVM and i-Voting scheme. Observer groups should also come out and demand the same. It doesn’t seem to be a large exercise. For the 2018 elections, the ECP had set up 250 polling stations. The overall turnout was 52%. The ECP has about two months to hold the polling. It has sufficient time to prepare itself to pilot EVM at least for half of the male and female polling stations, and i-Voting for the whole constituency. In the last few months, every TV channel has held numerous talk shows on EVM. This has managed to develop interest and curiosity, which may result in a higher turnout in the bye-election.

Caution. The pilot project in NA-133 must be done with utmost preparation and diligence. The past must not be the present. Avail the opportunity and let the people of the country have some sound data to decide the fate of EVM and i-Voting at least for the 2023 general elections. Repetition is the mother of learning and development. And it is also an integral philosophy of the ECP’s Strategic Plan.

Meanwhile, yet another opportunity has arisen to pilot the use of EVM in the forthcoming local elections in K-P.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 26th, 2021.

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