The commission on election rigging is expected to wrap up its work soon. After one whole year on tenterhooks, hopefully some answers will be forthcoming. There has been talk of a large-scale election audit, but nothing concrete has materialised yet. If the judicial commission orders an audit — and it just might, there is certainly tons of evidence for misconduct and negligence — what might be the likely rationale and the implications? What are the benefits? What does a large-scale election audit look like? This article is an attempt to answer these questions, not just considering the ongoing political crisis but also in the broader context of electoral reform and democratic norms.
Whereas there are countless instances of rigging and systemic failure in national elections world over, there is no historical precedent for an election audit that we can simply copy. In modern times, two attempts were made to kick-start a full-fledged audit and both were aborted shortly after.
The first is the notorious US presidential election of 2000 which boiled down to a gridlock in the state of Florida. George W Bush’s razor-thin margin of victory over Al Gore automatically triggered a recount. The situation was further complicated by hard-to-use voting machines and confusing ballot design resulting in a shocking two million invalid votes. Gore promptly went to court demanding every vote be faithfully counted. Bush filed contesting litigation. This cycle escalated; ultimately 47 lawsuits were filed and the US Supreme Court stepped in. In a highly contentious ruling, the bench halted all recounts and awarded the election to Bush, arguing that a recount threatens “irreparable harm to petitioner Bush, and to the country, by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election”. Ironically, the bench itself was sharply split on this verdict by five to four.
The second example is of the Afghan presidential election last year. Mass rigging claims implicated government personnel, election officials and security forces. European Union observers noted that about two million of the eight million votes cast were suspect. The two chief candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, represented different ethnic groups, and there was the possibility of civil war if the matter wasn’t quickly resolved. The US finally mediated a recount under the auspices of the UN. Ballot boxes from 23,000 polling stations would be escorted to Kabul by US security services and every vote would be recounted. The process, marred by quarrels, soon fell apart and the US brokered a power-sharing deal where Ghani became president and Abdullah his chief executive.
Neither of these solutions reads as particularly satisfying. In our case, a full-fledged audit could yield substantial benefits. For one, it is the only way to silence all critics to put this matter to rest. And we would have solid answers. We still don’t know whether this was a conspiracy or a systemic failure in election protocols. Who is responsible? Most importantly, exactly how legitimate is our government? The politicians have utterly failed in providing a solution. One can only hope the judiciary delivers.
Plus a real audit would be a golden opportunity for the election commission to redeem itself in the public eye after the dismay of last two years. And — in the spirit of air crashes and automobile crash testing — if we want wide-ranging electoral reforms, is it not common sense to first fully investigate the disaster on hand? While an election audit may sound like a massive exercise, in our case it is not insurmountable. There are efficient ways to go about it using macro-level checks and statistical techniques.
Last year, the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) unveiled a straightforward, common-sense three-stage plan for auditing the elections, which does not involve forensically examining every vote cast. It runs as follows:
First, we measure the scope of the irregularities. The forms of the ballot and tally counts for all national and provincial seats, and the infamous forms 14, 15, 16 and 17 need to be checked to ensure consistency. These forms also need to tally with election materials from each constituency, the number of used ballots, copies of the electoral roll, etc. Furthermore, the forms have to be legitimate, on the proper letterhead, signed by authorised personnel, etc.
Second, we examine suspect constituencies where rigging may have taken place. Political parties have submitted long lists, together with some hard evidence. As Mr Sarwar Bari noted a little over a year ago (in an article coincidentally titled “A Year after the Elections”), in over 90 constituencies, the number of supposedly cast votes differs from the official number of final registered votes. There are some 35 constituencies where the number of rejected votes far outnumbers the winner’s margin of victory, in some cases by an entire order of magnitude. The location of about 5,000 polling stations was changed at the last minute without the election commission’s approval — this may have been an exercise in stuffing ballot boxes.
These two macro-level checks are relatively easy to run and should immediately net the bulk of the alleged fraud. In fact, these checks in themselves may give us all the answers we need without having to delve into more depth.
The final step in the FAFEN methodology, and certainly the most difficult: “Hold election officials at all appropriate levels responsible for any identified irregularities, whether caused by acts of omission or commission.” The report lists the penalties for various offences as described in the Representation of Peoples Act 1976.
This question of accountability has been starkly absent from the general discourse on the rigging scandal. Thus far the pattern of the election tribunals has been to skip accountability altogether, simply press the reset button and hold fresh polls. There have been isolated calls for justice, but, on the whole, apart from the PTI — and FAFEN — the silence on this key question, especially among our intelligentsia, is deafening. Is it because this whole issue has become extremely politicised? Or perhaps, because, not really having a democratic tradition to call our own, we simply cannot fathom the gravity of these offences?
Electoral fraud cuts to the very heart of our social contract: it undermines the foundation from which all rights and privileges draw forth. It is theft and violation at the same time. In terms of spirit if not extent, electoral fraud is really not very different from treason. If we cannot appreciate this in principle, we can at least get a whiff of this by seeing how established democracies deal with electoral fraud.
The Australian Criminal Code Act of 1995 lists over 60 forms of electoral fraud. Forging electoral papers incurs the maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment. In the US, casting more than one vote is a third degree felony in several states. If a voter were to cast just two votes, he could land five to 10 years in jail and a $5,000-$10,000 fine. There have been convictions for rigging union elections and for forging signatures on candidates’ nomination petitions. A couple of years ago, a San Diego university student was sentenced to prison for rigging a campus election. In the UK, a criminal investigation was launched after a man accidentally listed his dog as an eligible voter. There are hundreds of such examples; it would be amusing if it weren’t so depressing. Accountability really is a no-brainer.
And it is not at all difficult to deliver if we shake off our political paralysis. The Axact saga has dominated the news in gory detail the last few weeks. But that doesn’t even begin to compare with this blatant and fundamental violation of our trust.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 28th, 2015.
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