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The need for electoral reforms

By December 6, 2020 No Comments

The issue of electoral reforms has once again come to the fore in the wake of Gilgit-Baltistan vote and approaching AJK and Senate elections. In a recent presser, PM Imran Khan announced some electoral reforms which he and his party intend to bring in parliament and asked opposition parties for support to protect the integrity of future elections.

The reforms announced seem reasonable theoretically, but there are issues regarding their implementation. The introduction of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and extending the voting facility to overseas Pakistanis are contentious issues that demand a thorough debate in parliament.

The stated purpose of introducing EVMs is to bring transparency and make the election process less cumbersome. But EVM experiences worldwide tell another story. Most developed nations have discarded electronic voting and reverted to a paper-based voting system. In 2009, the German constitutional court discarded electronic voting saying it does not ensure public scrutiny and transparency. Despite being a technologically developed nation, Germany could not allay fears and concerns regarding e-voting. Similarly, the US, France, and the UK use a paper-based voting system to ensure the transparency.

India is the only major democracy that uses an e-voting system, but there have been many concerns regarding it. Its Supreme Court ordered attaching the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines for a paper trail of the votes cast. It also ordered that the counting of EVMs should be corroborated with the paper trail to protect the integrity of the electoral process. But this order defeated the purpose of using EVMs because it made the counting process more cumbersome, and the introduction of VVPATs also increased the election expenditure and defeated the purpose of paper-less elections by introducing a paper trail of electronic votes.

Practices worldwide show that the paper-based voting system is the best. The loopholes in the existing system should be plugged after a detailed debate in parliament. And given the low literacy rate and lack of awareness, e-voting would be a non-starter.

Secondly, the issue of extending voting facilities to overseas Pakistanis is debatable. The Constitution guarantees the voting right to expats, but there are problems in its implementation. Designing an effective voting system for Pakistanis living abroad is an uphill task. The network-based voting system could not ensure the integrity and security of voters’ data, and mail vote could not guarantee the voters’ true identity. In the absence of a fool-proof system of distant voting, extending the voting facility to overseas Pakistanis would create more problems.

This does not mean that the voting right should not be extended to expats. Just that before undertaking such an exercise, best practices around the world must be thoroughly studied. All countries have certain restrictions on overseas citizens to be eligible to vote. India, for example, requires non-resident to be physically present in the country to vote. The UK gives the voting right to its overseas citizens till 15 years of leaving the country. France has constituencies reserved in its parliament for overseas citizens, so that they have adequate representation. Therefore, to have a successful voting system for Pakistanis living abroad, there should be a well-crafted plan before practically implementing this decision; otherwise the integrity of future elections will be severely compromised.

It’s time all stakeholders reach a consensus in parliament and produce meaningful reforms after a healthy debate. Parliamentary democracy is deliberative in nature, and without consensus-building, any reforms are bound to fail.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 6th, 2020.

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