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Photo Source: The Express Tribune

Pakistan Reader# 202, 13 September 2021

Controversy surrounding the debate over Electronic Voting Machines



Introduction of EVMs in Pakistan

The introduction of EVMs in Pakistan has been met with controversy due to misconceptions, lack of sufficient parliamentary debate and inadequate preparation for the change in voting

Abigail Miriam Fernandez
Project Associate, School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS

On 11 September, the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) warned against any attempt to amend the Elections Act 2017 without a political consensus. In a statement it said, “FAFEN sees with concern the imbroglio between the government and the opposition parties as counter narrative of the democratic traditions and practices that had seen the treasury always ensuring a political consensus on particularly constitutional amendments and electoral reforms.” It added that despite political fragmentation, political parties had developed a consensus on electoral reforms in 2017 with the help of a multi-party parliamentary committee, adding, “the government must uphold such practices as a way forward on critical amendments to the election law, which are being proposed through Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2020 and Elections (Second Amendment) Bill, 2021.”

Specifically, to the introduction of EVMs, it said, “Of particular concern is government’s aggressive push for the introduction of EVMs and overseas voting without providing adequate legislation catering to the complex questions that are necessary to be addressed before the introduction of any technology at a national scale.” Similarly, on 7 September, the Election Commission of Pakistan submitted its report on the use of EVMs to the Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs, raising as many as 37 objections. According to the report, there not enough time for the countrywide use of EVMs in the next general elections, additionally, it stated that the EVM will not have proper confidentiality of the ballot paper, while the identity of the voter will not remain anonymous. Further, it stated that the machines are not tamper-proof and have software that can be easily altered. It also pointed out to the logistic of training the massive number of operators required and the possibility of security issues involving the chain of custody.

Government and Opposition
While the PTI government has been pushing EVMs as a modern, scientific way of ensuring free and fair polls, the opposition parties have criticised the move arguing that the machines would only enable rigging.

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), terming it as a plan to undo the 18th Amendment via a “selected parliament” said, “The prime minister’s obsession with the electronic voting machines betrays a lack of understanding of the issues at best and a plan for manipulating next elections through technology so as to undo the 18th Amendment through a selected parliament at worst,” adding, “EVMs can neither check booths capturing nor put to an end the mysterious midnight phone calls from ‘NO Caller ID’.” Meanwhile, the Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PML-N) claimed that the EVMs were unacceptable until comprehensive electoral reforms took place, adding, “even if the government passes the bill on the use of EVMs on the basis of a ‘fake’ majority, it will have no legal or moral status.”

Conversely, the PTI-government has maintained its decision on using EVMs and e-voting in the next general polls, ruling out the possibility of rolling back its plan. The government has reiterated that the machines “couldn't be hacked or riddled with bugs,” and was the solution to rigging during and after elections, thereby ensuring transparent. Additionally, they stated that they wished to remove any sort of “misunderstanding” from its decision to use EVMs in the elections. However, they maintained that the decision on whether the machines fulfilled the requirements rests with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) adding that the ECP was the only constitutional institution that could approve or reject them.

The controversy
The benefits of election technology have always been a debatable topic, ridden with controversy and misconceptions. While EVMs have considerably reduced polling-station fraud, more reliable, fastened the reporting process and more cost-effective, the same has been prone to hacking and has been criticised for the lack of transparency, voter privacy, ineffective auditing, procedural irregularities and overall election integrity

In Pakistan’s case, the controversy stems from several issues. First, the question of accountability. The PTI-government has been an ardent advocate for bring back ‘accountability’ in politics and has taken measures in the name of ‘accountability.’ However, the Opposition has been critical of this, seeing it as a means of targeting.

Second, the lack of debate on the EVMs. The lack of debate on the EVMs both at the political and public level has been reason for the controversy. While the Opposition has voiced concern over being left out of the debate, the ECP and the government have not taken measures to ensure consultation and wide-ranging stakeholder participation in the process.

Third, the misconception surrounding the EVMs. An opinion in Dawn hightlights that there are two main misconceptions surrounding the EVMs. One, EVMs the solution to problems relating to suspected election rigging in Pakistan. Twp, the misconception over the possibility of conducting the entire upcoming election through EVMs in Pakistan.

Thus, while the PTI-government may be on the right track of bring in electoral reforms, the opposition needs to be discussed electoral reforms as well as the lacunas that exist regarding the logistics in terms of the intricacies and ground realities of Pakistan’s elections landscape, expertise in new technologies and inculcating the new electoral ecosystem with technology will have to be looked into before the any decision is made.

References
EVM controversy,” Dawn, 9 September 2021
Taha Ali, “Reconsidering Electronic Voting,” Dawn, 15 August 2021
Electronic voting machines can't be hacked, says Shibli Faraz during demonstration,” Dawn, 11 August 2021
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, “The case of EVMs,” Dawn, 17 April 2021
Other electoral reforms,” Dawn, 12 September 2021
Iftikhar A. Khan, “Fafen identifies legal lacunas in bill on EVMs, overseas voting,” Dawn, 12 September 2021
Govt sticks to using EVMs in next elections,” The Express Tribune, 10 September 2021
Key clauses of electoral reforms bill rejected,” The Express Tribune, 10 September 2021
PML-N, govt continue to battle over EVMs,” The Express Tribune, 12 September 2021
EVMs: PPP sees conspiracy to undo 18th Amendment,” The Express Tribune, 22 August 2021
Mumtaz Alvi, “ EC rejects EVMs with 37 objections,” The News International, 8 September 2021
Tariq Butt, “Rejection of EVMs: Govt’s task to introduce equipment becomes tough,” The News International, 9 September 2021
Opposing EVMs,” The News International, 4 September 2021
Reforms and EVMs,” The News International, 24 August 2021

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