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EVMs: a costly affair

ECP

A board of Election Commission of Pakistan. Photo: FIle

Despite all the hue and cry of the opposition parties, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government pulled off a suprise win when it managed to get the amendments into Election Act, 2017, and this is a crucial step in paving the way for the next general elections to be held through Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). However, the facts gathered by Bol News prove that the road and journey to practically achieve such a feat is surely going to be very bumpy and very costly.

Will the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) manage to use EVMs in the next general elections to be held in 2023, is a million dollar question at the moment. It can prove to be quite a conundrum to find the perfect answers to the queries related to availability of EVMs, their use and their effectiveness at a time when less than two years are left for the next polls.

Even the ECP Special Secretary Zafar Iqbal, while appearing before the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Law and Justice in Islamabad on Thursday, had said that he was not sure whether the next polls would be held using EVMs. Iqbal further stated that three or four pilot projects were needed to reach any conclusion on the matter, which makes the the use of EVMs in the general elections a race against time. It is also noteworthy that the Commission had put forward around three-dozen observations and suggestions before the parliament regarding adopting EVMs and the challenges attached with doing so, which, according to the ECP, were not debated at the august session of the House.

Benefits of using EVMs. Graphic: Sheeraz Ali/Bol News

Arranging several hundred thousand EVMs and the training the IT experts to operate them, is a tough ask from the ECP to complete within the next 20 months. According to the electoral body’s estimates, there are approximately one hundred thousand polling stations and four hundred thousand polling booths for which as many as nine hundred thousand EVMs will be required if separate machines are used for National Assembly and Provincial Assembly elections. The ECP has further estimated that keeping in view the initial investment and ongoing costs, including storage cost and hiring and training of staff and other expenditures, this system will cost approximately Rs150 billion. Similarly, around three hundred thousand IT experts are required by the Commission to handle the electronic gadgets during the polls.

“The commission endorses the introduction of new technologies in electoral processes, however, the commission has reservations with regards to the usage of these machines in general elections in haste,” maintained Iqbal.

Regarding adopting technological changes, the ECP noted that different types of EVMs must be subjected to massive testing and once suitable machines are selected, these should be procured initially on a small scale for pilot projects and after proper evaluation decisions should be made for use in the general elections without undue haste. “The timelines for proper implementation of such technology is likely to be measured in years rather than months,” claimed the ECP official.

Read More: 2023 will see world’s most expensive elections if EVMs are used, fears Azma Bukhari

The Commission had further underscored that with the introduction of machines, general elections may be held in staggered manner with a central counting mechanism to avoid the impact of the results of one phase on another which will require consequential amendments in the legal framework. “Conducting poll within a day using machines is nearly impossible,” according to the commission, which further observed the secrecy of a vote as guaranteed in the Article 226 of the Constitution of Pakistan can be breached through EVMs, as well as, increased possibilities of coercion and bullying.

“Transparency is a key principle to develop trust among stakeholders. In the electronic election process many visually verifiable steps in physical voting are automated in the EVM and cannot be seen,” maintained Iqbal. According to the ECP, the use of EVMs was frequently offered as a defence against ballot stuffing and alteration of results but these devices will not counter all types of frauds, but will instead open up the possibility of other more sophisticated types of fraud through manipulation of software and hardware.

The Commission had further observed that machines cannot prevent issues attached with electoral frauds including booth capturing, low women voter’s turnout, misuse of state authorities, electronic ballot stuffing, vote buying, law and order situations, dishonest polling staff, widespread political and electoral violence, abuse of state resources by incumbent parties.

According to the ECP, most established and new democracies have decided not to use EVMs as Europe and North America have moved away from the use of these machines while South America [Brazil] and South Asia [India] are using this technology. Germany, France, Netherlands, Ireland, Italy and Finland have abandoned this technology. Only nine countries in the world are using EVMs including India and Brazil being significant among them, where India has taken a long-term, gradual approach, towards using EVMs due to scrutiny.

Talking to Bol News, Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) President Ahmed Bilal Mehboob stated that insisting to use EVMs for the next polls was an unwise decision. He maintained that the reason Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan had brought in the idea of using EVMS was to create transparent and acceptable polls for everybody, however, this idea has already died out since the use of EVMs has become controversial after all topposition parties have rejected the idea. “The PM may have good intentions, and I don’t doubt [this], but I think he hasn’t been briefed properly about EVMs,” claimed Mehboob.

Read More: Use of EVMs not feasible, says PPP MNA

Talking about cost-effectiveness, president PILDAT said around Rs 150 billion is needed for EVMs and other related equipment, and the country would not be able afford such costly elections. Mehboob further stated that the 2018 general elections cost the country around Rs 40 billion. He also pointed out that only 20 months are remaining until the 2023 polls and in this short period of time the Commission wouldn’t be able to fix the EVM issue. He added that it took India nearly 22 years to fully implement EVMs therefore we should, similarly, adopt these technological changes in phases as we do not possess the capacity to go ahead with the decision that fast. He held firm that, “in coming weeks, after finalising specifications, the ECP would issue tenders to arrange EVMs and other related equipment which will not be an easy task to complete within 20 months.” Furthermore, he said, as the entire responsibility falls upon the ECP for the results of the coming polls, it is the most concerned over the haste of adopting the EVMs. Terming the use of EVMs a daunting task, the PILDT president stated that he doesn’t think the 2023 polls would be held through the EVMs. According to Mehboob, EVMs would be easy ‘prey’ for the ‘centralised forces’ to manipulate the election process.

Meanwhile, National Democratic Foundation Chairperson and former ECP Secretary Kanwar Muhammad Dilshad, while speaking to Bol News, stated that the PTI government wanted to introduce EVMs in a haste but the Commission wouldn’t be able to hold the entire process of next general elections through the electronic gadgets. “The use of EVMs wouldn’t be implemented in the entire country during the next general elections,” maintained Dilshad while adding that the Commission could implement EVMs in four to six districts as pilot projects during the 2023 polls as the entire elections could only be held through such machines in 2028 polls.


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