A controversy has erupted between the government and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) over the use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). The technology has been heralded by the prime minister as the only solution to end rigging and other anomalies in the general elections. The election regulatory has raised around 37 objections to the introduction of EVMs, saying it was prone to tampering and its software could be easily hacked, and thus cannot prevent rigging completely. With less than two years till the government completes its terms, the decision is already facing several hurdles in implementation.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has submitted a document to the Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs, in which it has outlined 37 objections against the plan to introduce electronic voting machines (EVMs) for the upcoming general elections. In principle, the idea of using technology to further streamline the process and iron out existing kinks in the system is great and much needed. However, the implementation of such processes on a mass level requires a lot of planning and deliberation; it is encouraging to see that a conversation has started among the key stakeholders on this matter.
The Election Commission of Pakistan placed a document before the committee that raised as many as 37 objections. It warned that the machines were tampering-prone and their software could easily be altered. It raised damaging questions about ensuring the security and chain of custody for the machines at rest and during transportation. It was maintained that the time was too short for a large-scale procurement and deployment of EVMs and providing training to a massive number of operators required to handle them. Another serious weakness in the system was that there would be no evidence available in case of election disputes. PILDAT President Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) Representative as well as former ECP Secretary Kanwar Dilshad supported the objections while adding more to them.
One of the core concerns has been surrounding security and how machines could be tampered with, or that the software could be hacked. Just the digitisation of a process does not necessarily make it better compared to the previous one. Concerns relating to security are understandable considering how countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy and Finland had abandoned the use of EVMs due to a lack of security.Another issue raised by ECP has been regarding the implementation timeline. The ECP has argued that there is not sufficient time for a large-scale procurement and deployment of EVMs before the next general elections. There are several prerequisites that will need to be factored in before such a technology can be used in such consequential elections. These would include training for machine operators, political consensus among parties and amendments to the constitution, infrastructure development, risk assessments and a disaster recovery plan among others.
The government must reconsider its stance. Now that there is a renewed push for electoral reforms, it is critical to get them right — and for that, consensus between the government and opposition parties is key. At this point, they cannot even agree on prospective names for the appointment to the two ECP posts that fell vacant after the retirement of the members and it seems increasingly likely that the constitutionally mandated deadline for the appointments is likely to be missed. The only sensible way for the government would be to abandon the idea of relying on the new technology in the 2023 elections. It can however test it in by-elections or local body elections, after consultations with the opposition, to familiarize the voters with the new system and to remove any possible glitches.
While EVMs can certainly be introduced in future elections, it must be done not in haste but after sufficient parliamentary debate and adequate preparation for such a radical change in the method of voting. For 2023, the old-fashioned paper ballot is likely the safest route. An insistence by the government on EVMs and i-voting despite serious objections by independent and knowledgeable persons would convince the opposition that the government is bent upon stealing the elections. This will lead to a prolonged confrontation lasting till 2023 which the country can ill afford.