Electronic Voting Machines
The federal government has recently passed a piece of legislation according to which the next general elections in Pakistan will be held through electronic voting machines (EVMs). “The [Election] Commission shall procure electronic voting machines (EVMs) for casting of voters in general elections.” Presented by Zaheer-ud-Din Babar Awan, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs, the Statement of the Object and Reasons of the bill states: “Fair, free and transparent elections have been a long outstanding demand of almost all the political parties including PTL The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is obligated to organize and conduct elections honestly, justly, fairly and in accordance with law, and that corrupt practices are guarded against, under Article 218 (3) of the Constitution. Utilization of technology and modem gadgets has become essential to facilitate the ECP for ensuring transparency in elections…”
The history of EVMs in Pakistan spans over a decade and revolves around various experiments.
The idea was introduced to the country in 2009 when the PPP was in power, and the first pilot project was run during the 2011 local government elections. Before the pilot run, the Election Commission of Pakistan had formed an EVM Committee to review various ideas and EVM designs. The committee presented its report in 2010 and recommended the use of EVMs on a trial basis in 2011 LG polls.
The first point in the report did say that “the current system of paper balloting has many advantages, including that the system is verifiable and trusted by stakeholders, easy to understand for all, easy to recount, reliable and any fraud is more likely to be localised and on a limited scale.”
After the 2011 LG elections, the work on EVMs continued and, in 2014, the National Institute of Electronics developed a machine. This was the first indigenously developed EVM. The machines were tested in the elections of various bar councils.
Later, in October 2014, the ECP announced that it was considering the possibility of switching to electronic voting machines for the next general elections. The rationale given was to fix the irregularities in country’s electoral system and prevent a repeat of the rigging allegations as witnessed after the 2013 parliamentary polls. Political parties such as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) also floated the idea of holding by-elections, as well as local government polls, at least in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), using electronic means.
Although the PTI government introduced an electronic voting machine in July 2021, Pakistan developed its first EVM long before it. The Pakistan Peoples Party, and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, which now oppose the use of EVMs, once planned to use the same machines for holding elections. 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.
PTI picks up the thread
When the PTI came to power in July 2018, it didn’t pick the thread on EVMs immediately. In 2020, Fawad Chaudhry, who was Federal Minister on Science and Technology at the time, briefed Prime Minister Imran Khan on the EVMs.
Chaudhry returned to the ministry of information soon afterwards but the work on EVMs continued and in July 2021. The National Institute of Electronics introduced another model of EVM. This model was essentially no different from the earlier model.
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/her vote without the need to visit the voting booth using the internet facility, while in the stand-alone machines, a vote can 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.
An EVM usually consists of two major parts: A voter identification station that is controlled by the presiding officer and a voting station that is placed inside the voting booth. The electronic vote cast using the machine is also recorded on a paper ballot which is collected in a box attached to the voting station.
The prototype machine presented by the PTI is independent of the internet, hence it cannot be hacked. 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 counter-foils 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.
It is not possible to vote more than once by pressing the button again and again. As soon as a particular button on the balloting unit is pressed, the vote is recorded for that particular candidate and the machine gets locked. Even if one presses that button further or any other button, no further vote will be recorded. This way the EVMs ensure the principle of “one person, one vote”.
The control unit is kept with the presiding officer or a polling officer and the balloting unit is placed inside the voting compartment. The balloting unit presents the voter with blue buttons (momentary switch) horizontally labelled with corresponding party symbol and candidate names. The Control Unit, on the other hand, provides the officer-in-charge with a “ballot” marked button to proceed to the next voter, instead of issuing a ballot paper to them. This activates the ballot unit for a single vote from the next voter in the queue. The voter has to cast his vote by once pressing the blue button on the balloting unit against the candidate and symbol of his choice.
As soon as the last voter has voted, the polling officer-in-charge of the control unit presses the ‘close’ button. Thereafter, the EVM will not accept any votes. Further, after the close of the poll, the balloting unit is disconnected from the control unit and kept separately. Votes can be recorded only through the balloting unit.
During the counting of votes, the results are displayed by pressing the ‘result’ button. There are two safeguards to prevent the ‘result’ button from being pressed before the counting of votes officially begins. (a) This button cannot be pressed till the ‘close’ button is pressed by the polling officer-in-charge at the end of the voting process in the polling booth. (b) This button is hidden and sealed; this can be broken only at the counting centre in the presence of the designated officers.
A free, fair and transparent election provides equal opportunities to all eligible citizens to elect their representatives and give legitimacy to the political government to take decisions in the country and people’s interest. A true democratic government, which comes into power through a free and transparent election, always enjoys the overwhelming support of the people. Democracy strengthens when elected representatives who are accountable to people, must return to voters after completion of five-year constitutional term to take a fresh mandate through a free and transparent election process.
Elections are free and transparent only when each step is open to scrutiny and stakeholders can independently verify whether the electoral process was conducted accurately, honestly and information relating to all stages of the electoral cycle is accessible to citizens, voters, candidates and political parties.
Which Countries use EVMs?
Some 33 countries use some form of electronic voting, India being the biggest of them. In India, 911,950,734 voters exercised their right of franchise through 1.5 million EVMs during their April-May 2019 polls. Moreover, EVMs are used in Belgium, Estonia, Venezuela, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Maldives, Egypt and Nepal.
Countries that have banned the use of EVMs include, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy and Finland.
Benefits over ballot paper
Even though the initial investment in EVMs was heavy, it has since been expected to save costs of production and printing of crores of ballot papers, their transportation and storage, substantial reduction in the counting staff and the remuneration paid to them.
In a document submitted to the Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs, the ECP raised as many as 37 objections to the functionality of this device and declared it to be totally unfit for the task that it is going to be used for.
The ECP made a presentation in front of Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs, and warned that the machine was tampering-prone and its software could easily be altered. The ECP asserted that it is nearly impossible to ensure that every machine is honest and the chances are that they may all prove faulty.
Along with raising technical objections, the ECP also showed concern about the short time duration available for large-scale procurement and deployment of EVMs and imparting training to a massive number of operators adding that it was not advisable to introduce EVM nationwide in one go.
It said the polls on one day, as required under the law, would be nearly impossible. The ECP also referred to various other issues linked with the use of EVMs, including lack of ballot secrecy, lack of capacity at all levels and lack of ensuring security and chain of custody for the machines at rest and during transportation.
The ECP also pointed out that there would be no evidence available in case of election dispute. The ECP noted that data integration and configuration issues may crop up due to court orders at the eleventh hour regarding a change in ballot paper.
The ECP also contended that EVM could not prevent low voters’ turnout, low women’s turnout, misuse of state authority, election fraud, electronic ballot stuffing, vote buying, the law and order situation, dishonest polling staff, widespread political and electoral violence and abuse of state resources. It went on to say that in case of introduction of the technology in haste, the conduct of free, fair, credible and transparent elections as per the Constitution was not possible.
It said that Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy and Finland had abandoned the use of EVMs due to lack of security. About prerequisites for introduction of EVMs, the ECP said these included availability of a secure and reliable solution, political consensus among the parties represented in parliament and amendments to the Constitution, acts and rules, infrastructure deployment for staggered elections, threat models and risks assessment and disaster recovery plan. It was pointed out by the ECP that it was certainly in favour of technology but it must be secured and tested.
In order to bury the rigged voting system and ensure free, fair and transparent elections in 2023, the PTI-led government has passed a historic legislation allowing the use of EVMs.
Replying to questions from reporters after the Assembly session, Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, said that the related bill was about the use of new technology and it would continue to make progress.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the government wanted to introduce a credible and transparent system for elections through legislation. Responding to the opposition leader, he said their electoral reforms are aimed at protecting the election process from being stolen asking the opposition parties to also vote in favour of the relevant bills.
The foreign minister pointed out that questions have always been raised on the elections held after 1970 and said that time has come to set the direction right and ensure the transparency and credibility of the electoral process. Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the government, on its part, time and again approached the opposition parties on electoral reforms. “We repeatedly tried to give demonstrations to the opposition parties on EVMs.” He said the aim of introducing EVMs is to bury the evil design and vicious mindset of imposing the governments.
What opposition parties say?
The Leader of the Opposition in National Assembly, Shehbaz Sharif, strongly chided the government for passing this bill. He opposed the use of EVMs in general elections by saying that after the PTI government felt that RTS had been outdated, it has come up with these machines to rig general elections. He pointed out that the (ECP also opposed the use of EVMs in general elections after which the federal ministers at the behest of the PM used threatening language against ECP.
How observers see the EVMs?
According to Sarwar Bari, former secretary general of the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen), the use of EVMs would help ensure transparency in the elections and almost eliminate the involvement of polling officers (POs) in the election process. “About 99% involvement of POs in the election process after the introduction of EVMs will come to an end and the chances of rigging will be eliminated to a great extent as compared to the old election process,” he said.
He said the EVMs would minimise the role of humans in the election process. “Now, it will be done through the machines,” he said, adding that the use of EVMs was a part of the strategic plan 2019-23 of the ECP but no development had been made in that regard.
Reports have indicated that almost 800,000 machines will be procured for 2023 elections. Delivering and returning the machines safely is a big challenge, while transportation charges will come separately for delivering electronic voting machines everywhere.
Before implementing the new system, the government should keep in mind that the last general election in 2018 cost about 20-25 billion rupees, the 2013 general election cost 4.73 billion rupees and the 2008 general election cost 1.84 billion rupees.
However, the use of electronic voting machine is expected to cost more than 150 billion. This is not a mean amount in Pakistan which is financially unprecedentedly tied up and is living on borrowed money with its foreign and domestic loans having hit the highest point in the national history.
Each EVM booth will require separate manpower. It is difficult to fully train the presiding officers and staff at each polling booth. Two to three IT personnel will have to be deployed at each polling station. In the next election, there is a possibility of 100000 polling stations for which at least 300000 IT specialists will be required.
Meanwhile, the Centre has once again urged the Opposition parties and other stakeholders to sit with the government on electoral reforms to hold ‘objection-free’ general elections. However, important questions regarding EVMs have been raised by the ECP and serious circles which need to be considered.
That in order to exercise the people’s right to vote in a transparent and full manner, the government, the opposition and the ECP should find a way of achieving consensus instead of indulging in disagreement for dissent.
The writer is a CSS aspirant.