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Internet Voting: Opportunities and Challenges for Pakistan

Former secretary ECP is skeptical of the government's initiative to introduce internet voting to get the Pakistani diaspora involved in the country's elections. He argues the initiative comes with serious challenges of lack of accountability and transparency that even most developed nations have failed to overcome. He cautions the government to be judicious in using electoral technologies without an in-depth analysis and feasibility studies considering the socio, economic and cultural environment of the country.

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Under Article 218 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is charged with organizing and conducting elections and making such arrangements necessary to ensure that the elections are conducted honestly,
justly, and fairly.

According to ECP’s Strategic Plan-1, the vision of ECP is to fulfill its Constitutional obligation of holding free, fair, and impartial elections in a practical, credible, transparent, and independent manner.

It has to provide equal opportunity and accessibility to all and meet the nation’s aspirations for a strong democracy in Pakistan. About nine million overseas Pakistanis of voting age live in different countries of the world.

Out of these, about seven million are National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP) holders aged 18 years and above who are eligible voters, while the rest are dual nationals who are not eligible to vote as per the existing Pakistani electoral legal framework.

For a long time, granting a right of vote to overseas Pakistanis has been under consideration among electoral stakeholders like political parties, parliament, media, electoral analysts, overseas Pakistanis, and particularly the ECP.

However, regardless of the modality to follow, out-of-country voting is complex, time-consuming, and resource-intensive. Therefore, in-depth analysis of the feasible options and adopting the most viable and practical methodology on a priority basis after thorough consultations with all electoral stakeholders, particularly the political parties, is the first and utmost important step for making the requisite legislation.

In addition, planning and preparations need to commence in a timely fashion, including the crucial outreach to the diaspora and sensitizing stakeholders, particularly the politicians, to the risks and disadvantages through a series of mock and live pilot projects before full-scale implementation, of the adopted methodology, in General Elections 2023.

Read More: Is the current i-Voting system for overseas Pakistanis secure?

The ECP, under directions from the Supreme Court of Pakistan, in collaboration with National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), planned to conduct a live pilot project on 14 October 2018 by-elections in 36 constituencies of National and Provincial Assemblies of Pakistan.

Before commenting on this pilot project’s operational and technical aspects and outcome, it seems necessary to glance over internationally accepted/recognized electoral standards.

Core principles of a democratic election

Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for which Pakistan is a signatory, establishes a set of core principles for democratic elections within political elections: “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of  government; this will (of people) shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

Five such core principles have been stipulated for the European elections to be free, fair, and transparent. This clause sets out those five principles that democratic elections must follow.

• Periodic: Set specified periods for elections. Elections must be regular and unable to be easily changed.

• Genuine: Genuine change must be a possibility – the government must be able to change depending on the outcome of the election. This similarly applies to the competence of the organizers of the elections – change must be possible through genuine and well-organized elections.

• Universal and Equal Suffrage: Every citizen should have the ability to vote, regardless of their social status, ethnicity, level of education, or any other personal aspect of themselves. Equally, the ability to register oneself as eligible to vote should not be affected by anything other than age or citizenship.

The principle of equal elections requires that every voter be given the same number of votes, and every vote must carry the same weight. The election system should only permit every eligible voter to cast one vote and only once – one person, one vote.

• Free Suffrage and Voting Procedures: While this is predominantly a secret ballot, other voting options are permitted as long as they are entirely free. Free in this context can be understood in two ways. Firstly, individuals should not be persecuted for or prevented from their preferred voting preferences.

Secondly, the elections should be transparent in the sense that they can be checked for integrity. Voters should be entirely free in their decision and must on no account be interfered with by threats or pressure.

It is guaranteed by provisions, to this effect, contained in the electoral legal framework. There is a close connection between free suffrage and the secret ballot.

• Secret Vote: The secrecy of the ballot means that no other person or group of people, private or public, including the organizers of the election, should be able to learn how an individual has cast their ballot.

This clause is included as an ideal voting procedure to ensure that people can vote for whom they choose to vote for without fear of repercussions from friends, family, employers, or the government.

Read More: Will letting overseas Pakistanis right to vote via internet compromise confidentiality?

Existing options

Overseas Pakistanis have numerous options available for remote voting with and without incorporating modern information and communication technologies. The frequently discussed and debated options for remote voting by overseas Pakistanis are voting by mail; establishing polling stations in the embassies/ consulates; establishing polling stations in the host countries, and internet voting.

Other than remote voting, the most viable and straightforward option is to have reserved seats for Overseas Pakistanis in the Senate, National, and Provincial Assemblies of Pakistan.

Just like reserved seats for women, minorities, religious scholars, and technocrats, these elections are held as per party list submitted by the political parties based on which ECP allocates seats based on seats won in the Senate, National, and Provincial Assemblies.

Moreover, all NICOP holders are registered as voters in the respective electoral areas as per the permanent address in Pakistan mentioned on the NICOPs. If they happen to be present at their permanent address in Pakistan on the election day, they can vote at the respective polling stations allocated to their electoral areas.

Internet voting by Overseas Pakistanis

The option of remote voting by overseas Pakistanis, using modern information and communication technologies for internet voting, has been under consideration among electoral stakeholders.

The ECP has considered this option and other viable options through consultations with all electoral stakeholders, particularly the political parties and the parliament. Internet voting requires smart visual cards and scanning equipment for voters’ identification and authentication.

This methodology is a complex, highly technical, time-consuming, and resource-intensive process that violates the basic principle of ‘Universal and Equal Suffrage.’ It is liable to compromise the two of the most important principles: ‘Secrecy of the Ballot’ and ‘Free Voting Procedures.’

Read More: Electoral Reforms: EVMs will not be connected to the internet, clarifies Fawad Chaudhry

Some of the issues related to this methodology are: There is a possibility of unauthorized intervention by a third party in the voting process; It is more difficult to identify any error and technical malfunctioning, which can jeopardize the exercise; As stated above, thousands of electors will be deprived of their right to vote for not knowing how to cast a vote or for not having access to the internet.

International perspective on internet voting

Many countries allow Internet/online voting for their citizens living abroad, particularly technologically advanced nations, such as Austria, Australia, India, Estonia, France, Poland, Switzerland, United States, and Canada.

However, introducing new voting technologies at full-scale implementation, without extensive and in-depth research, evaluation, and series of mock and live pilot projects, has been counter-productive.

The experiences of developed and developing countries in advanced technologies have mostly fallen short of delivering the desired results. Resultantly, some of the most advanced countries of the world have rolled back or chosen not to deploy Internet-voting and electronic voting machines (EVMs) not only based on technical and security concerns but also due to lack of transparency, public trust, and legitimacy issues apart from financial, operational and functional aspects.

While Pakistani electors living in Europe and America may utilize this facility effectively, it will be problematic for those working in the Middle East as laborers, almost 70 percent of Pakistanis living abroad.

Element of trust and confidence in electoral management bodies is of paramount importance, unfortunately lacking in developing and underdeveloped countries. Suppose the technological voting solutions compromise fundamental election standards/properties like universal and equal suffrage, ballot secrecy, verifiability, coercion resistance, and election integrity. In that case, it can lead to severe legal and political implications, questioning the very integrity of the whole electoral process.

Internet Voting

Internet-voting platform developed by the government

The honorable Supreme Court of Pakistan convened a session of representatives of political parties, the general public, media, IT experts, NADRA, and ECP on 12 April 2018 about the voting rights of overseas Pakistanis.

Read More: Overseas Pakistanis voting: what are the prospects and pitfalls?

The purpose of this session was to discuss the Internet-voting platform developed by NADRA to allow overseas Pakistanis to cast their vote. On the directions of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, ECP constituted Internet Voting Task Force to undertake a forensic/ technical audit of Internet-voting platform developed by NADRA.

The report of the Internet Voting Task Force was submitted to the Supreme Court of Pakistan and ECP. This report is mainly related to technical and security concerns and serves as an informative and valuable resource for developing Internet-voting solutions for Pakistan.

The experiences of other countries in using Internet-voting and other electoral technologies for voting by out-of-country citizens typically remain obscure from public debate. The report concluded that Internet voting is a high controversial issue based on technical and security concerns.

Scope and magnitude of Internet-Voting Live Pilot Project

The ECP and NADRA have made comprehensive presentations before the Supreme Court. Based on these presentations and third-party validation from independent experts (Internet
Voting Task Force) regarding, safety, integrity, and workability of the system; the Supreme Court asked ECP to utilize Internet-voting system being safe, reliable, and effective for a pilot project for overseas Pakistanis to cast their vote in the bye-elections in 35 constituencies of National and Provincial Assemblies of Pakistan to be held on 14 October 2018.

Accordingly, ECP framed Rules 84-A, 84-B, and 84-C of the Election Rules. As per Rule 84-A. Regulation procedure for voting by overseas Pakistanis, the Election Commission will hold voting through the internet; only those overseas Pakistanis voters to be eligible for voting who possess: 1). Valid NICOP; 2)., Valid Machine Readable Passport (MRP); and 3). Valid E-mail Address for pilot project 14 October 2018 bye-elections.

If the ECP was not satisfied with the integrity, safety, and reliability of the systems and the votes cast by overseas Pakistanis from the official results of the bye-elections under the proviso to Rule 84-C92), this safety feature was to ensure that the elections are founded upon verified and authenticated votes only.

However, under the proposed Internet-voting system, many overseas Pakistanis were deprived of ‘Universal and Equal Suffrage’ for not possessing MRP and E-mail Addresses, especially labor force in the Middle East and other remote areas. Accordingly, ECP conducted a live pilot project for Internet voting for overseas Pakistanis on 14 October 2018 by-elections in 35 National and Provincial Assemblies constituencies.

Read More: Access to Internet: Barometer of New Divide Global Divide?

However, no Internet voting was held for three constituencies due to: Contesting candidates for PP-296 (Rajanpur-IV) and PP-87 (Mianwali-III) were declared unopposed by ECP; Not a single voter was registered in BP-40 (Khuzdar-III).

This Internet-voting project was open to all Pakistani diaspora living anywhere in the world. However, only a negligible proportion of overseas Pakistanis (1.17% of eligible voters) got themselves registered for Internet voting.

Analysis of the Live Pilot Project

Out of 631,909 eligible overseas Pakistanis in 35 constituencies where by-elections were being held, only 7,419 voters got registered with the Internet-Voting system under the voter registration process, despite extending the registration process for 33 hours by ECP.

Most voters were registered from five countries: USA, Canada, UK, UAE, and KSA. These voters were registered in 11 constituencies of the National Assembly and 23 constituencies of Provincial Assemblies of Pakistan; not a single voter was registered from Baluchistan Provincial Assembly constituency BP-40 (Khuzdar-III).

Only a tiny fraction of overseas Pakistanis, i.e., 1.17% of eligible voters, were registered, which is a significantly small number. This implies that a minimal number of the diaspora had an interest in Internet voting and/or had Internet access.

It is a typical example of the digital divide, which clarifies the ‘Haves’ – living in big cities like New York, Toronto, London, and Paris, etc., and ‘Have Nots’ – mostly labor force living in remote and far-flung areas.

It is like ‘White Color Jobs’ – educated and technology literate and ‘Blue Color Jobs’ – uneducated and technology illiterate. This analogy is like we enfranchise only voters living in metropolitan cities of Pakistan like Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Hyderabad, Peshawar, Quetta, Islamabad, etc. while disenfranchising voters living in small cities, towns, and villages.

Will the electoral stakeholders accept this significant anomaly, i.e., grossly violating the basic principle of “Universal and Equal Suffrage” across the board. As far as the sanctity of two critical principles: “Secrecy of the Ballot” and “Free Voting Procedures,” is concerned, no empirical evidence is available that these principles were not compromised.

Read More: Egyptians start voting in referendum to extend Gen. Sisi’s rule

We can infer that these principles were violated to any extent – the limit of imagination. Of the 7,364 registered voters for Internet voting, a total of 6,146 voters (83.46%) cast votes for National Assembly and Provincial Assembly seats.

This good turnout may be due to the excitement of first time Internet-voting. Only 87 voters (1.18%) cast votes for two National Assembly and Provincial Assembly seats held simultaneously.

In the General Elections day scenario, except for Islamabad Capital Territory, the elections for National Assembly and Provincial Assembly constituencies will be held simultaneously.

Internet-voting Pilot Project vs. Election standards/principles matrix

If the electoral stakeholders and researchers can point out minor flaws in the voting system, they may question the legitimacy and compromise the whole election process. Extreme caution should be taken while introducing new electoral technologies.

The following matrix may ascertain how far the Internet-voting pilot project for overseas Pakistanis on 14 October 2018 bye-elections in 35 constituencies of National and Provincial Assemblies has been successful.

It is safe to conclude that Internet voting for overseas Pakistanis is not feasible. In reality, Internet voting to all overseas Pakistanis (not to a few) eligible to vote as per the existing electoral legal framework is like going to the moon.

The introduction of new voting technologies at full-scale implementation, without extensive and in-depth research, evaluation, and series of mock and live pilot projects, have been counter-productive and, at times, disastrous.

The experiences of developed and developing countries on the use of advanced technologies without in-depth research, evaluation, and extensive pilot projects have mostly fallen short of delivering the desired results and meeting the expectations of all stakeholders.

Read More: ‘Smart Village Project’ launched in all provinces

The countries’ experiences in using Internet-voting and other electoral technologies for voting by out-of-country citizens typically remain obscure from public debate. Interestingly, some of the most advanced countries of the world have rolled back or chosen not to deploy Internet-voting and electronic voting machines (EVMs) not only based on technical and security concerns but also due to lack of transparency, public trust, and legitimacy issues apart from financial, operational and functional aspects.

The limited resources, effort, and time should strengthen existing democratic electoral processes in line with the international standards and the best practices. ECP should invest in extensive research, evaluation, and development for the most critical issues requiring electoral reforms like constituencies delimitation using GIS technologies, voter education and awareness, result management system, decreasing gender gap in the electoral register and building public confidence and trust in electoral processes to be addressed on a priority basis.

We should not re-invent the wheel and retry failed solutions. We should identify the proper methodologies, systems, tools, and technologies and apply them appropriately, considering our requirements, which is the only advantage developing countries have; to learn from the successes and mistakes of the developed world.

In today’s competitive environment, information technology is considered an inescapable requirement for modern organizations that are dynamic in outlook, progressive in style, responsive to changing environment, and systematic in approach.

Modern technologies can be desirable; even the educated elite are easily lured to a modern hi-tech environment. Technology is not the panacea for every problem or complicated issue. Every technology should not be superimposed.

Before undertaking automation, the existing processes should be refined, redesigned, and reengineered in the first instance. We should be judicious in using electoral technologies without in-depth analysis and feasibility studies considering the socio, economic and cultural environment.

Budgetary estimates should not be based on conservative figures. Any new electoral process, especially those based on new technologies, should be widely tested along with an elaborate consultative process with the electoral stakeholders through series of extensive mock and live pilot projects before full-scale implementation.

In this regard, the electoral stakeholders, especially the political parties and the Parliament, have to play a leading role and formulate rules of the game based upon ground realities.

 

Kanwar Dilshad is former Secretary, Election Commission of Pakistan, Islamabad. He is the Founder and Chairman of National Democratic Foundation.

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