Internet voting, opportunities and challenges
As per Rule 84-A, regulation procedure for voting by Overseas Pakistanis, the Election Commission will hold voting through Internet; only those Overseas Pakistani voters to be eligible for voting who possess:
1). Valid NICOP;
2)., Valid Machine Readable Passport (MRP); and 3). Valid E-mail Address for the purposes of pilot project 14 October 2018 bye-elections.
In case, if the ECP was not satisfied about the integrity, safety and reliability of the systems and the votes cast by Overseas Pakistanis from the official results of the bye-elections in accordance with the proviso to Rule 84-C92).
This safety feature was to ensure that the elections are founded upon verified and authenticated votes only.
However, under the proposed Internet-voting system a large number of Overseas Pakistanis were deprived of ‘Universal and Equal Suffrage’ for not possessing MRP and E-mail Address, especially labour force in the Middle East and other remote areas.
Accordingly, ECP planned to conduct a live pilot project for Internet-voting for Overseas Pakistanis on 14 October 2018 bye-elections in 35 constituencies of National and Provincial Assemblies. However, no Internet-voting was held for three constituencies, due to:
• Contesting candidates for PP-296 (Rajanpur-IV) and PP-87 (Mianwali-III) were declared unopposed by ECP.
• Not a single voter was registered in BP-40 (Khuzdar-III). This Internet-voting project was open to all Pakistani Diaspora living anywhere in the world.
However, only a negligible proportion of Overseas Pakistanis (1.17% of eligible voters) got themselves registered for Internet-voting.
Conclusion: It is safe to conclude that Internet-voting for Overseas Pakistanis is not feasible.
During the Internet-voting live pilot project in 35 National Assembly and Provincial Assembly constituencies only 7.419 out of 631,909 (merely 1.17%) eligible Overseas Pakistani got registered all over the world.
In reality, Internet-voting to all oversees Pakistanis (not to a few) who are eligible to vote as per the existing electoral legal framework is like going to moon.
Keeping in view the universal principles of human rights and fair, free and credible elections, right of vote as far as possible should be extended to all Overseas Pakistanis across the board.
The Internet-voting violates the key universal principles like ‘Universal and Equal Suffrage’, ‘Secrecy of the Ballot’ and ‘Free Voting Procedures’.
In addition, it involves complex technical issues, mammoth financial resources and confidentiality and security issues.
The Internet-voting system for Overseas Pakistanis will makes a clear divide between the ‘Haves’ living in big cities like New York, Toronto, London and Paris etc, ‘Have Nots’ – mostly labour force living in the Middle Eastern remote and far flung areas.
Introduction of new voting technologies at full scale implementation, without extensive and in-depth research, evaluation and series of mock and live pilot projects, have been counter-productive and at times disastrous.
The experience of developed and developing countries on the use of advanced technologies without in-depth research, evaluation and extensive pilot projects, have mostly fallen short of delivering the desired results and meeting the expectation of all stakeholders.
The experiences of the countries in using Internet-voting and other electoral technologies for voting by out of country citizens, normally remains obscure from public debate.
Interestingly, some of the most advanced countries of the world have rolled back or chosen not to deploy Internet-voting and electronic voting machines (EVMs) not only on the basis of technical and security concerns but also due to lack of transparency, public trust and legitimacy issues apart from financial, operational and functional aspects.
The limited resources, effort and time should be directed towards strengthening of existing democratic electoral processes, in-line with the international standards and the best practices.
ECP should invest in extensive research, evaluation and development for the most critical issues requiring electoral reforms like constituencies delimitation using GIS technologies, voter education and awareness, result management system, decreasing gender gap in electoral register and building public confidence and trust in electoral processes to be addressed on a priority basis.
We should not re-invent the wheel and retry the failed solutions. We should identify the right methodologies, systems, tools and technologies and apply them appropriately keeping in view our requirements.
In the competitive environment of today, information technology is considered an inescapable requirement for the modern organizations which are dynamic in outlook, progressive in style, responsive to changing environment and systematic in approach.
Modern technologies have lot of attractions. Even educated elite is easily lured to modern hi-tech environment.
Technology is not the panacea for every problem or complicated issue. Every technology should not be superimposed.
Before undertaking automation, the existing processes should be refined, redesigned and reengineered in the first instance.
We should be very judicious in using electoral technologies without in-depth analysis, feasibility studies keeping in view socio, economic and cultural environment. Budgetary estimates should not be based on conservative figures.
Any new electoral process/system, especially those based on new technologies should be widely tested along-with elaborate consultative process with the electoral stakeholders through a series of extensive mock and live pilot projects before full scale implementation.
In this regard, the electoral stakeholders, especially the political parties and the Parliament have to play a leading role and formulate rules of the game based upon ground realities.
An effort has been made in this paper to discuss the operational, functional, financial and legal aspects of Internet-voting.
The technical issues especially related to technology and security aspects of Internet-voting in the overall scenario of information and communication technologies have also been briefly discussed in this paper.
However, the purpose has been to keep the technical matters as simple in layman language as possible.
References have been frequently made to ‘ECP Report on I-Voting Pilot Project in 35 Constituencies Held on 14 October 2018, prepared by ECP’s IT Wing’, ‘Findings and Assessment Report of the Internet Voting Task Force (IVTF) on Voting Rights of Overseas Pakistanis (Executive Report 2018)’ and ‘Feasibility Report on Overseas Voting for Pakistan conducted by Mr. Michael Burke, UNDP Pakistan, published in February 2017’.
The interested readers are encouraged to refer to these documents for further details. —Concluded.
—The writer is former Federal Secretary Election Commission of Pakistan and currently Chairman National Democratic Foundation.