Government can’t hold Electronic Voting in upcoming general elections of Pakistan

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Aga Faquir Mohammad senior lawyer practicing international and maritime law said that it is not possible to conduct upcoming general & or bye-elections of Pakistan through electronic voting (e-voting) by Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs).

Aga Faquir Mohammad expressed reasons behind his considered opinion that:

(i) No allocation of fund is made by the legislature in the federal budget 2020- 21.

(ii) Section 94 of the Election Act, 2017 states that Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) may conduct pilot projects for voting by Overseas Pakistanis in bye-elections to ascertain the technical efficacy, secrecy, security and financial feasibility of such voting and shall share the results with the Federal Government and may lay its report before both Houses of Parliament (Majlise-Shoora).

(iii) Aga Faquir Mohammad Advocate further said that ECP is the only statutory body under the Constitution having authority to conduct pilot projects for e-voting system, utilization for electronic machines. The act of demonstration of prototypes of EVMs before the Parliamentary Committee by the Federal Minister for Information & Technology is unconstitutional. Such misuse of power by the high officials including Minster is exercise in futile.

On a question raised by the correspondent of The Monitor, Aga Faquir Mohammad said that the process of conducting elections by e-voting is highly expensive and complicated exercise. It has to be done in phases, starting from local elections on a limited scale and after accomplishing satisfactory e-voting results should be introduced on a larger scale in bye-elections or in general elections.

The senior lawyer was commenting on the recent news that Prime Minister of Pakistan desired to introduce electronic voting machines (EVMs) for enabling online voting facility (e-voting) to non-resident Pakistanis in the upcoming general election 2023 and presentation on 1st April’ 2021 by the Federal Minister of Science and Technology on the use of EVMs for conducting fair and transparent elections in Pakistan and demonstration of five types of EVMs of which two were imported and three EVMs were to be locally manufactured before the Prime Minister referred to the statement made by a senior official of ECP that “the EVMs presented to Prime Minister by Ministry of Science and Technology were nine years old and unreliable.”

On a question regarding his views on promulgation of Elections (Second Amendment) Ordinance, 2021 (Amendment Ordinance, 2021) by the President of Pakistan on 9th May’ 2021 authorizing and binding the ECP to procure EVMs enabling e-voting for overseas Pakistanis while staying in the country of residence in the next general elections. Aga Faquir Mohammad said that the Amendment Ordinance, 2021 was promulgated in violation of Article 89 of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 1973 (Constitution) as there was no emergency which renders it necessary for the President of Pakistan to promulgate the Amendment Ordinance, 2021. The Chief Election Commissioner on 20th May’2021 told the newspaper reporters that the ECP carried out pilot projects on electronic voting and submitted its report to the Federal Government in December 2018 for conducting an audit of the EVMs and online voting process in transparent manner.

ECP after the promulgation of Amendment Ordinance, 2021 constituted a committee under the supervision of Secretary, ECP for procurement of EVMs to enable e-voting for overseas Pakistanis and to forward its recommendations in the next meeting to be held in this regard. Aga Faquir Mohammad told that ECP had constituted a similar Committee in 2009 on the “Use of Electronic Voting Machines in Pakistan (EVM Committee)” and the said Committee in its report submitted in September 2010 analyzed financial, legal and political dynamics involved in Pakistani elections recommending that:

(i) Legislative changes are to made to enable the conduct of electronic voting or counting to be pursued urgently in order to facilitate the pilot project;

(ii) Full implications of using electronic voting and counting technologies in Pakistan be assessed through the work of EVM Committee and consultations. Considering that electronic voting and counting solutions meet the needs of Pakistan, a full assessment of their suitability be further explored through the conduct of a pilot project;

(iii) The EVM pilot project should be conducted during forthcoming local government elections. In order to test the use of electronic voting, counting machines, supporting management and results tabulation systems, the pilot project be conducted incomplete electoral jurisdictions. Local government elections provide a good opportunity for doing this with minimal investment in electronic voting and counting machines as the electoral constituency, the Union Council is relatively small. One or more Union Councils should be selected to pilot the use of the selected EVM;

(iv) The ECP may begin the process to procure EVMs required to conduct pilot projects. Quotations be issued to the leading EVM vendors for the supply of machines for the pilot project;

(v) Comprehensive consultation with stakeholders, to assess their reactions for using EVMs and survey of voters to determine their experiences of using the machines. On completion of assessments and surveys, the ECP may meet the stakeholders to discuss the pilot project and determine the next steps, if any, on the use of EVMs in Pakistan;

(vi) Local hi-tech universities and research institutions be encouraged to conduct research and development for production of locally made EVMs meeting requirements as per ISO standard.

The said Committee in the report 2010 estimated the cost of a single unit of cheapest EVMs meeting all the requirements of electronic voting to be USD 1,250/- per unit. Approximately 200,000 units were required to be deployed all across Pakistan for the general elections 2013 making the total cost to USD 250 million excluding cost of transportation, installation and training of the officers employed for the electronic voting process.

The total numbers of registered voters in 2010 at the time of the said report were 76,194,802 whereas as of October 2020, the data of the final electoral rolls (FERs) released by ECP showed total number of registered voters to be 115,748,753 who may cast votes in the upcoming general election of 2023. The cost of conducting general elections-2023 through EVMs will be ten times more than the initially estimated cost by EVMs Committee in 2010.

On 19th May, 2021, the Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting and Adviser to Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs during presentation of prototype of EVMs before the parliamentary committee declined to submit estimated cost stating that the manufacturers of EVMs have not entered into commercial production phase.

Aga Faquir Mohammad further said that the Federal Minister of Science & Technology was misinformed that EVMs was manufactured by the Ministry of Science and Technology in collaboration with COMSATS and National Institute of Electronics.

All governments including the present government admitted manipulation, rigging, political interferences, and threatening polling officers in the local, provincial and national elections. In 2017, the Federal Government for the purpose of amending, consolidating and unifying all laws relating to the conduct of elections had enacted Elections Act, 2017 wherein sections 94 and section 103 were introduced delegating power to ECP for conducting pilot projects for voting in bye-elections.

The veteran lawyer said India and Pakistan have resemblance in their administrative, managerial, socioeconomically and political factors. Both countries are highly populated. Rate of literacy and development of IT infrastructure is more or less the same. India started experimenting with EVMs in the year 1999 in local election and by 2013 general elections by using EVMs were held in limited constituencies. India completely switched towards EVMs from traditional paper balloting in the year 2018. Aga Faquir Mohammad concluded that unless and until necessary legislative changes are made in the law and successful pilot projects are run in the local or bye-elections, Pakistan cannot conduct the upcoming general elections of 2023 through EVMs.