In what was described by a minister as a murder FIR against electronic voting machines (EVMs), the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Tuesday raised as many as 37 objections to the proposed introduction of EVM.
The ECP in a document submitted to the Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs, which met here with Senator Taj Haider in the chair for a second consecutive day, warns that the machine was tampering-prone and its software could easily be altered. “It is nearly impossible to ensure that every machine is honest,” noted the document, a copy of which is available with Dawn.
Representatives of civil society also attended the meeting and opposed both the plans to introduce EVM and internet voting for overseas Pakistanis.
The objections were submitted to the Senate panel by the ECP a day ahead of its schedule to go for voting on two controversial bills seeking to amend the elections act. ECP Special Secretary Zafar Iqbal Hussain and Director General for IT Khizar Aziz attended the meeting.
Minister proposes voter slip reader machine as alternative to EVM
The ECP said time was too short for a 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 EVM, 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. It 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 commission said there was an absence of dust and humid free controlled temperature environment warehouse for storage. It said a huge learning curve was required for technical operators, adding that there was no consensus among the stakeholders on EVM which was also not financially feasible.
The ECP said 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 was pointed out that Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy and Finland had abandoned the use of EVM due to lack of security.
About prerequisites for introduction of EVM, 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.
Zafar Iqbal Hussain told the meeting that the ECP was in favour of technology, but it must be secured and tested. He said there should be a consensus among the stakeholders and EVM must not be introduced in undue haste. He was of the view that the machine should not be used for the next general elections.
Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan, while terming the ECP document a murder FIR against EVM, called for introduction of the machine during the next general elections and said a pilot project should be carried out in the intervening period.
“We are not here to reinvent the wheel,” he said, adding that an informed decision should be taken. He said if there were any reservations, the government and the Ministry of Science and Technology were ready to address them.
The minister also came up with an alternative proposal of continuing with the existing voting system only with an addition of voter slip reading machine for vote count, which was appreciated by the committee. The minister, however, agreed that there were some issues with internet voting.
Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency president Ahmed Bilal Mehboob in his briefing said it would not be appropriate to introduce EVM in haste, in the absence of a consensus.
He was of the view that EVM would be susceptible to manipulation through radio device and fall short to address the issues of counting of votes and transmission of results. He said the machine was not foolproof and there was a room for manipulation of results.
Mr Mehboob said the time was too short for procurement and testing of EVM for the 2023 elections. He said it was a job of the ECP and it should not be forced to do it in a period of less than two years. He also expressed reservations over the proposed I-voting for overseas Pakistanis, saying it was insecure.
Pointing out that the margin of victory in 24 constituencies during the 2018 elections was less than the number of invalid votes in a constituency, he said estimated 40-45 constituencies would have margin of victory lesser than the number of votes of oversees Pakistanis, and any hacking of the system would have potential to influence the polls.
Free and Fair Election Network representative Chaudhry Rasheed said it was unclear whether the ECP could procure machines that include facility of voter authentication and verification as provided for in Section 84(2) of the Elections Act 2021. He was of the opinion that such technology could compromise a voter’s secrecy and his/her choice might be tracked.
Mr Rasheed said an amendment required the ECP to enable overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right to vote in their country of residence only during general elections through any means developed with the assistance of the National Database and Registration Authority or any other authority or agency.
He said the amendment clearly reflected the intention of the government that an IT-based system be developed for the purpose. The amendment, he added, lacked on critical questions pertaining to voting by overseas Pakistanis, including responsibility of their registration as voters and allocation to the constituency and mechanism for the ECP to enforce the legal requirements as provided for under Section 30 of the Elections Act, dealing with claims and objections, and Section 37 that deals with verification.
Former ECP secretary Kanwar Dilshad observed that there was a fear of a big electoral fraud if EVMs were used in haste. He said the machines could easily be tampered. He said as many as 0.8 million EVMs would have to be procured if a decision to use these machines for elections in one go was taken. He said it would also require a constitutional amendment.
A representative of Smatmatic, a Spanish manufacturer of EVMs included in the list of special invitees on the recommendation of Senate Chairman Sadiq Sajrani, also briefed the committee on the use of the machine. He was grilled by Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar of the PPP for not mentioning the flaws in EVM identified during a pilot project when the firm was engaged by the ECP.