Perspective 360°

The prospect of electronic voting

Published Mar 23, 2015 05:56pm

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Imagine waking up on polling day, logging on to the internet, clicking a button — and that is it, you have just cast your vote! No more languishing in lines, frantically ascertaining your assigned polling booth or dodging pesky political workers. While the notion of remote electronic voting, as it is called, remains for the time being a distant dream, efforts were recently made to introduce Pakistan to a voting method more advanced than the traditional stamp-on-ballot-paper routine used in the country.

Follow thy neighbour

In 2012, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) announced that it would be taking a leaf out of India’s book and adopt the Indian Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) system for elections the following year. India first implemented the system in its 1999 general election — by the time the 2004 election rolled around, the system had been firmly entrenched and implemented. Although the initial set-up costs were high, the costs of printing, storing, and transporting ballot papers and related polling paraphernalia were avoided in the long run.

Last month, news channels in Pakistan streamed images of presiding officers stamping scores of ballot papers in favour of candidates of their choice; by allowing a maximum of five votes per minute, the Indian EVM boasts of drastically limiting the incidence of rigging. “With Pakistan, India and Bangladesh having such similar cultures, all [of us] should help each other … we must learn from each other,” stated Muhammad Afzal Khan, the spokesperson for ECP, in 2012. According to some reports, tests were carried out and machines tested. But as the year progressed, the idea got pushed under the radar, only resurfacing when the 4.5 million-strong community of overseas Pakistanis demanded their right to vote. Some sources claim that an online system of voting was, in fact, established by the National Database and Registration Authority — but the venture was deferred till the next elections due to time constraints and attendant logistical concerns.

But pause and think first

In spite of the apparent benefits, the fear of such machines being tampered with runs quite high. In a security analysis of the EVMs, it was demonstrated how the system can be tampered with before and after voting has taken place: in one instance, a part was placed inside the machine prior to polling, which displayed the candidates’ totals even before a single vote had been cast in their favour. In another instance, a small clip-on device was used to manipulate the results after voting. The relative ease with which such tampering can be carried out places the transparency of the system under question.

Then there is the famed Volusia error, which may have very well changed the destiny of a nation, and consequently the world. In the 2000 US general election, all eyes were fixed on Florida’s 25 electoral seats, where the tight race between George W Bush and Al Gore had boiled down to. When the results were checked by a Volusia county official at around 10 pm, Al Gore was in the lead by a good 20,000 votes. But in just 30 minutes, the EVMs dropped Al Gore’s lead by a startling 16,000 votes, handing Florida over to Bush. How different the world would have been had Al Gore become the president is a question to which we can never have an answer. But that aside, for an established democracy that has been using electronic voting since 1964, doesn’t this glitch make the entire electronic enterprise appear a lot less appealing?

Compiled from media reports by Javaria Khan