Monday, May 13, 2013

Time for Electronic Voting

I feel sorry for Hakeemullah Mehsud. To his utter dismay (as if he cares), people went out to vote and made the current elections a milestone in Pakistani history. The bloodiest of all elections , the turnout was more than ever before (around 60%) in which Pakistanis of all hues and color took active part. PML (N) stole the spotlight overall whereas PTI made history in KPK. In all this environment of festiveness, competitiveness, ugliness on social networks, fights amongst party workers, violence, bomb blasts and rigging concerns - One thing was for sure; Pakistanis went all out to show the world that they are the really the bravest lot in the world.
One aspect that kept raising its head was rigging and it seems that it will take quite a while where this issue attains a low profile. Now that the elections are over, lets discuss now how can the next election process can be made more transparent.
1 - Elections Under Army Supervision.
Now, this one makes me uncomfortable. Yes, Army is the most powerful institution but come election day, where do you see them apart from the TVs? They are no where to be honest. Also, living in Karachi, I have come to this conclusion that Rangers are just figurine of people in army fatigue; completely useless and just a drain on the finances. So why give them more importance by calling them every time in elections? I say No to army for elections.
2 - Electronic Voting
Now this gets me more buzzing. Voting through electronic means indicates a natural evolutionary step. I do not know how many countries go through elections by electronic means but I do know that ECP and Nadra have a service called 8300 that has all my electoral data! That is a huge step ahead. So what measures can be adopted? Let’s examine.
a) SMS Based Voting
If ECP/ Nadra has all my voting credentials, why not registering one further info? My cell phone number. This would be the number officially registered with ECP/ Nadra which could be used as an authentication of my being a genuine voter. Bogus voting would require someone snatching or sending a vote through my phone without my knowledge to the ECP database. Still better than the scenario wherein you are being forced to vote by peer pressure (the person standing alongside you forcing you to vote for a certain party). The voting can be SMS based or App based. The communication can be encrypted as well as the database. All political parties can be made aware of the security mechanism for credential and data protection adopted.
The trouble would be that only people of the urban areas would be more inclined to this mode of voting, people of rural areas might not have the knowledge/ interest of using this facility - or the fact that they do not have a mobile phone for that matter. Other issues could be ECP server overload, communication signal strength or no signal at all or IT based attack of Denial of Service (DoS).
b) Electronic Booth Voting
The issue of mobile phone availability, signal strength or the issue of difficulty of usage of electoral means through it can be addressed by Electronic Voting Booths.  Here, the voting machines would be connected to the electoral database and by keying in your CNIC, your electoral credentials will appear. Select the candidate and your vote will be locked.
This will obviously of no help considering the fact that in the current mode of manual voting, person standing alongside you belonging to a political party forces you to vote for someone of their choice. Also, procuring machines in such a large number for all the polling stations would be a hugely expensive exercise.
What can be done is that polling stations can be reduced. The cost of manning polling stations and printing the ballot papers would be reduced. The voting machine can be placed in secured selected spots easily accessible where people can go and poll. There will be no issue of separate electoral list for every polling station because the electoral lists would be centralized.  If voters of a certain area do get blocked out because of the high handedness of any political party workers, any machine can be utilized to vote. The only issue would be to make people reach that machine and that would be a real problem for voters.
Electronic voting can reduce the instances of rigging – forcing people to vote for someone, stuffing ballot boxes, influencing polling staff, taking over the election material. It obviously cannot remove rigging but it sure can make elections in Pakistan more transparent to the satisfaction of people. ECP can opt for any one or a combination of the above for conducting the next general elections.
As for Hakeemullah, any news of his implosion yet?