Technology and elusive electoral credibility | Arab News

The following article was published in Arab News on May 01, 2021 at the following link.

The federal government under the directions of Prime Minister Imran Khan seems to be in over-drive mode to introduce technology in electoral processes before the next general election due in 2023. Two particular aspects of election are the focus of the government’s efforts. One is the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) which is proposed to replace the current ballot paper although paper will not be eliminated in the process as a paper trail is proposed to be provided as a part of the EVM. In addition, the government is keen to introduce Internet Voting or I-Voting to enable Overseas Pakistanis to cast their votes from their respective overseas locations.
Both the ideas have been debated in the media, judiciary and occasionally in the parliament for the last many years. The parliament had eventually made both the subjects part of the Elections Act passed in 2017. Under Sections 94 and 103 of the Act, the Election Commission was required to undertake pilot projects to test both technologies and submit the reports to the government. The Act also required the government to lay the two reports before the parliament within 15 days of the commencement of a session of either of the two houses following the submission of the report.
ECP submitted the report on EVMs to the government in early 2018 and subsequently the government laid the report before the National Assembly and the Senate on 15th and 25th January 2018 respectively. The report on I-Voting was submitted by the ECP to the government in early 2019 and laid before the National Assembly and the Senate on 14th and 22nd January 2019 respectively. It was for the government to initiate parliamentary debate on the two reports and amend Elections Act, 2017 to provide for the use of EVMs and I-Voting but it made no meaningful effort to legislate on the subjects for the last 32 months of its rule. It is only now that the Prime Minister has written a letter to the Speaker of the National Assembly to constitute a Parliamentary Committee to discuss these electoral reforms. After the lapse of more than half the term of inaction, the government seems to be in a hurry to complete the legal, political, administrative and logistic formalities well before the next General Election in 2023 – a tall order, rather an almost impossibility, considering the case of other countries like India.

The EVMs are being presented by the Prime Minister and his government’s spokespersons as the ultimate solution for disputed election results. This is an absolute misconception. In fact, with the lack of transparency in the programmed chip of the EVM and the possibility of hacking, EVMs render the electoral process more vulnerable. In the peculiar conditions of Pakistan where almost all political parties cry pre-election rigging and manipulation of candidates, it is not clear how EVMs will enhance electoral credibility. We have seen the collapse of the Result Transmission System (RTS) in 2018 and that should serve as a good lesson on how cautious one should be while introducing technology in a highly sensitive electoral sector.
India took over 22 years from its date of launching EVMs in a state constituency in Kerala in 1982 to country-wide use in the 14th General Election in 2004. There were issues of hardware, legal challenges, staff training and public awareness along the journey. The Pakistan government wants to cover this journey within 28 months! One might ask: why wasn’t the work initiated in 2018 soon after coming into power and now what is the hurry?
Pakistan will require about 300,000 EVMs to cover its entire General Election. Using six-year-old prices, this number of EVMs will cost around Rs.45 billion. If we add the cost of Biometric Verification Machines (BVM), storage, training, data integration etc, we may have to spend many times more. With the current precarious economic conditions in the country and a questionable cost-benefit ratio, the decision to deploy EVMs needs to be seriously debated within political parties and the parliament, if not in the cabinet.
Several reports prepared in Pakistan, some of whom are uploaded on the ECP website, have unanimously expressed serious concerns about the security aspect of I-Voting. Some countries like Norway, Estonia and New South Wales state of Australia do use I-Voting but the number of voters in these cases is well below 300,000. Compare this with 6 million potential overseas Pakistani voters and one can imagine the scale of technical complications and the political fallout involved.
In the specific context of Pakistan, unless a broad political consensus is achieved and confidence in technology is earned by its gradual introduction over a period of time, say by the 2028 election, technology will undermine rather than enhance the credibility of the electoral system. 

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