PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan reiterated his intention to introduce three key electoral reforms. Two of them relate to general elections and the third to senatorial elections.
Mr Khan strongly advocated electronic voting and presented it as a solution to our continuing problem of non-acceptance of election results by losing parties. He compared electronic voting to neutral referees in cricket which he reminded us was his idea as captain of the Pakistan cricket team.
Electronic voting can have advantages such as increased precision and speed in compiling results and eliminating invalid votes. The guaranteed confidence of all parties is unfortunately not one of the attributes of electronic voting. In fact, this method of voting is arousing growing skepticism in several countries, including the United States and India. Many countries, including Germany, France and the Netherlands, have abandoned electronic voting after adopting it.
The main reason is the lack of transparency. The heart of the electronic voting machine is the programmed chip. Over the years, several Indian politicians have expressed doubts about what goes into the chip. Some of them have asked the courts to provide a paper trail for each vote so that they may be able to match the results. As a result, Indian EVMs are now being modernized, at enormous cost, to also provide a paper trail. But the skepticism continues.
The pros and cons of MP proposals should be considered.
In Pakistan, we seem to have even greater skepticism about our electoral system and conspiracy theories are easily accepted. EVMs with their programmable chips can further reinforce these doubts, especially since the chip’s program is not something that can be seen with the naked eye.
Furthermore, the possibility of large-scale manipulation of election results by tampering with the EVM chip in Pakistan’s particular power structure cannot be ruled out. For example, the results reporting system collapsed in the 2018 election under very questionable circumstances and there was no proper investigation despite a delay of more than two years.
Another issue that needs to be examined is the financial feasibility of GVEs. In 2017, it was estimated that some 300,000 EVM would be needed for which a cost of around 45 billion rupees was estimated, excluding the cost of storage, service and training. Most likely, this cost has increased significantly by now. The government and parliament must carefully weigh the cost-benefit ratio of these expensive gadgets.
Under the 2017 Election Law, the Pakistan Election Commission was supposed to undertake pilot testing of EVDs and biometric verification machines and present the feasibility report to the government for further action. The ECP purchased some 300 EVMs and BVMs for this purpose and submitted a report to the government over two years ago. It is very important that Parliament does not rush through legislation and openly debate whether EVD will actually improve the credibility of polls.
The prime minister also announced work on making it possible for overseas Pakistanis to vote from abroad. The ECP gave the government its feasibility report on Internet voting two years ago. There are concerns about the confidentiality of votes and the confirmation of the free will of the voter sitting thousands of kilometers away. Since internet voting requires an email address, a large number of blue collar workers who do not use email will be excluded. These concerns need to be closely examined by Parliament. Parliamentary committees should call in experts and hold hearings before making a decision.
The third proposed reform is to make senatorial elections open instead of the current secret ballot system. The Prime Minister believes that the secret ballot encouraged corruption and the selling of votes. Even if there are a few suspicious cases, is it wise to change the whole system on the basis of such unscrupulous elements instead of taking action against the violators? The freedom of choice of legislators and the secrecy of the ballot as currently provided for in the Constitution should not be changed if we do not want to make robots of our legislators. If the system needs to be changed, it is not necessary to go through the freehand movement; parties should be allocated Senate seats in proportion to their strength in provincial assemblies, as in the case of seats reserved for women and minorities
There may be differing opinions on each of these three proposed reforms, but it is important, rather critical, that the government, parliament and parliamentary committees fully consider the pros and cons before passing legislation, as it is important to there will be long term implications for the choice. that we manufacture today.
The author is president of the Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency.
Posted in Dawn, November 22, 2020
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