Democracy: Space for Civil Society

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Democracy: Space for Civil Society

Technology aided elections is the latest fever that grips those concerned in any way with the elections in Pakistan. To them it is a ‘silver bullet’ that will deliver free, fair and transparent elections. Apparently they are well on their way to reinventing the wheel. Recently ECP, on the recommendation of Parliamentary Electoral Reforms Committee, has piloted Biometric voter verification system (BVVS) in a by-election in Haripur. The assumption on the part of pro technology segments is that an overwhelming majority of the electorate during the 2018 elections will be a smart phone using one; hence will be more at home using technology to cast their vote. Media with an inch-deep interest in issues seldom does research and paddles the pro tech approach to elections.

In my view e-day technology alone cannot ensure transparency in an electoral process. It is rather susceptible to rigging including fraud malpractices and systematic manipulation; it is an aid rather than a replacement to human adjudication. There are several examples from western world like California, Quebec, Italy and Germany that has forego electronic voting machines (EVM) due to lack of transparency. Regarding BVVS Ghana and Venezuela are two good examples of what to do, and what not to do. Former faced failure while the latter met with massive success. There were many reasons behind the success like series of pilot projects, several tests, stakeholders’ consultation and acceptance, voter education, training of election management bodies, cost benefit analysis, contingency plans, risks mitigation strategy and last but not the least, that is of immense importance, is citizenry’s confidence on its electoral commission and electoral systems. Although election technologies makes systems fast, ballot counting accurate; curtail the possibility of multiple voting and voter impersonation on e-day, it would limit the ability of polling officials to facilitate multiple voting and voter impersonation. It is difficult, “though not impossible”, to tamper with the machines. Machines are opaque devices that cannot be fully observed; in contrast a manual system i.e. a balloting system instead of an EVM is more transparent and observable on e-day by anyone.  

Point to a fact that the use of e-day technologies is a high cost, high risk undertaking whose benefits sometime fail to match the high expectations thus ending up in resolving numerous post-election complaints by election tribunals like happened in Netherlands where in 2008 EVM, having being tampered, were banned. It was the result of a group of activists and civil society (CS) who successfully demonstrated that the EVMs being used at that time could be easily tampered with.

In Pakistan’s context the CS should way out all options before advocating implementation of e-day technology. Pakistan is not the first country to implement election technology. Most of the western world has reverted to paper based traditional systems after experiencing huge failure with e-day technology (black boxes) having incurred huge losses with money and credibility.

NGOs can also play a substantial role in raising awareness about different countries’ experiences with the e-day technologies. Another way is to include global practices in elections in the curriculum and higher learning institutions can commission researches around the future election technologies.

Additionally those suggesting the use of e-day technologies must also take in to account the cost factor including not only the first time cost but cost incurred on maintenance, storage, software update, configuration, security etc; the state money which should instead be spent on the basic needs like health and education.

While there is a pressure by the opposition parties to adopt financially and otherwise unfeasible e-day technologies, the ECP can only resist such pressures if the CS makes informed decisions and supports the commission.

The advantages and disadvantages of using e-day technologies vary from country to country, as the challenges and issues faced by the existing system in elections. Therefore, there is no one answer on the appropriateness of using e-day technologies. In broad terms, the more complex technology is employed the more risk is inherent.

Think twice and look around!

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