The raging controversy on the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the next general elections to be held in Pakistan in 2023 continues without let up. The ruling party insists on switching over from ballot papers that require physical counting to EVMs for the next general elections. To that end, it has produced a prototype that it claims would eliminate human errors/mischiefs and accurately reflect the vote count.
All general elections for the past four and a half decades have been highly controversial, denounced as rigged by all political parties. The losers wail the election was stolen from them and spent the entire term trying to oust the government that they considered illegal, while the winners whine they would have won more seats but for the balloting shenanigans. The addition of bogus ballot papers, deliberate miscounting, and wrong reflection of the final count by the presiding officers are some pervasive complaints.
What are the underlying problems with this system?
The PML (N) and the PPP, when in opposition condemned the balloting as flawed and demanded changes, but preferred the status quo when they came to power. Imran Khan, the current Prime Minister of Pakistan, has flipped the script by suggesting doing away with manual balloting and physical counting of votes cast and replacing it with electronic voting machines. It has even presented a prototype of a locally manufactured EVM claiming it is hack-proof and will eliminate the past practices of bogus voting and deliberated miscounting.
Ironically, now the opposition parties disagree vehemently and are convinced the EVMs that are being proposed will be programmed to steal the next elections. They are clamoring for continuation with the dysfunctional paper balloting, manual counting and registering of the results.
In discussions and talk shows particularly in the electronic media the ruling party and the opposition behave like lawyers defending their client’s position, rather than conducting an impartial assessment of the pros and cons of the EVMs which the PTI proposes to introduce.
An EVM consists of a control and a balloting unit. EVMs could be a computer (internet) assisted or function in the stand-alone mode. In the former case a voter can cast his vote without the need to visit the voting booth using the internet facility, while in the stand-alone machines, a vote can only be cast only from the polling booth, where he is registered.
Electronic voting systems have been in use since the 1960s when the punch card system debuted. Modern EVMs are based on a direct-recording electronic voting system where each vote is recorded and tabulated.
Currently, nine nation-states that include the USA and India use EVMs while in three others it is under trial. The opposition’s observation that EVMs have been rejected worldwide is partly true. EVM usage has been banned in Germany, Britain and Italy partly because the internet-connected system was prone to hacking. Belgium and Estonia in Europe use EVMs as does Australia, while interest in EVMs is growing particularly in South America. In most advanced democracies the manual vote casting and counting have been free of any controversies, hence the adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ is in play.
General Election controversies in Pakistan have two distinct phases: pre-poll and post-poll. Of the two, post-poll riggings are far more damaging and EVMs can help reduce it to a bare minimum. Pre-poll violations, however, cannot be eradicated by EVMs. The Election Commission (EC) is the only forum that can address the gross pre-poll violation of election rules by the political parties, some more than the others.
The prototype machine presented by the PTI is independent of the internet, hence it cannot be hacked. They have demonstrated on the electronic media some of its built-in features that in their judgment would guarantee the insertion of bogus votes.
First, the machine will activate the balloting circuit only after fingerprint identification of the voter. It will then display the list of the eligible candidates for the particular booth along with their party symbols. Once the voter selects his choice and presses the requisite button, his vote will be electronically recorded and stored in the computer memory. It will simultaneously print out a slip indicating the candidate selected so that he can verify and satisfy himself that his choice has been correctly recorded. The voter is then expected to fold the slip and drop it in the ballot box provided in the booth, thus ensuring the sanctity and secrecy of the vote. EVM voting will also eliminate the rejected votes because of stamping errors by the voters.
The counterfoils would be available to cross-check the result by counting if the foil numbers tally with the data provided by the machine, should a complaint be received and entertained by the EC. The ballot box will also serve as an alternate if a machine becomes unserviceable and a replacement is not available. And finally, the machine has been programmed to allow only one vote per fingerprint thus eradicating the likelihood of casting multiple votes by an individual.
The features demonstrated by the prototype EVM should allay any fear of manipulation by the political parties, provided these are confirmed by experts in the field of software programming and are approved by the EC.
Addressing the elephants in the room
Benazir Shah, in her brilliant article titled ‘Just how feasible is it for Pakistan to use Electronic Voting Machines during elections,’ has identified hurdles that need to be overcome for EVM usage, hurdles that are rarely identified in the public debates by the political pundits.
First is the cost. In the 2018 general elections, there were 85,000 polling stations, 24,000 polling booths and 95,000 voters’ identification units. According to her, about 900,000 to 1,000,000 EVMs would be required if the elections for the general and provincial assemblies are held on the same day. The cost of an EVM-held election including the price of the machines, training, technical support, Election Day cost plus storage of equipment until the next elections under a conservative estimate comes to a cool 75 billion rupees or may go up to 100 billion.
The 2018 election expenditure was about Rs. twenty-one billion; the introduction of EVM would enhance it by over three and a half times. Can the national exchequer afford the massive rise, is it a question the government has to figure out? Perhaps the need to ensure controversial free elections is paramount and the additional funds may be justified if the EVM machines can eliminate post-poll rigging.
The second aspect concerns the reliability of the EVMs. Assuming the final product is approved by the EC, how reliable would these delicate machines be in the rough and tumble environment where these will be deployed, particularly in the rural settings. This factor has to be determined through rigorous trials before EVMs are cleared.
And finally, will the government machinery be able to produce the requisite number of EVMs before the next general elections, which is due in about two years’ time. If the EVMs are approved in the coming two months, Benazir Shah calculates a minimum of three thousand units would need to be produced per day to meet the target. Is the system geared up to meet this high figure, is the question the administration has to resolve.
Continuing with the paper balloting and manual counting methodology that has proved highly controversial time and again in every election held in the country for over four decades is a losing option—it has to change. EVMs, provided they meet the stringent standards of the EC, are a way out. Their usage will reduce the post-poll balloting frauds to a bare minimum. The pre-poll scams on the other hand can only be addressed through fresh electoral reforms.
a. The government and the EC must operate on a fast track to evaluate the ECMs which the government has developed. The decision to clear or reject them should be taken as soon as possible if these are to completely replace the paper balloting method in the coming 2023 general elections.
b. Assuming the machines are approved by the EC, these should be employed on trial bases on every bi-elections held in the country to further determine their efficacy in actual field conditions.
c. Overcoming all the hurdles pointed out by the next general elections, particularly on the production of the required number of EVMs, supporting equipment and staff training will be a tough call. It will be a race against time, and if the numbers fall short, EVMs could still be employed, particularly in the urban areas.
Air Cdre (Retd) Jamal Hussain has served in Pakistan Air Force from 1966 to 1997. He was awarded Sitara-e-Basalat for his services in the year 1982. He regularly contributes articles on defense issues in the Defence Journal from Pakistan, Probe Magazine (Dhaka – Bangladesh), and national newspapers including Dawn, The News, and The Nation. He is the author of two books on ‘Air Power in South Asia’ and ‘Dynamics of Nuclear Weapons in South Asia’. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.