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Using analytics to identify voter fraud

Updated May 17, 2013 02:12pm


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enter image description hereAs the vote count subsides, allegations of electoral fraud rise. Almost all major political parties in Pakistan have hurled allegations of voter fraud in the May 11 elections. Some activists have taken to the streets. They should, however, head to a computer lab to analyze precinct counts for voter fraud.

Statisticians have devised algorithms to identify certain types of voter fraud, such as ballot stuffing and manipulated counts. Other types of electoral fraud, such as harassment of candidates, voters, and poling staff do not necessarily require any statistical proof since such overt acts could be identified without the use of analytics.

Millions of Pakistanis have voted in the May 11 elections to show their support for the democratic process. Democracy, however, is not confined to casting votes. Dispute resolution through peaceful means is also a hallmark of the democratic process. Pakistanis may want to learn from others who have relied on scientific method, courts and the rule of law to resolve electoral disputes.

Recall the American presidential elections in 2000 in which President George W. Bush was declared victorious against the Democratic candidate, Al Gore. The election was decided arbitrarily by the US Supreme Court that halted the vote recount in Florida and upheld the decision by Florida’s Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, who declared Mr. Bush as the winner in Florida. The victory in Florida delivered Mr. Bush the presidency of the United States.

However, Mr. Gore was found to be the real winner of the US Presidential elections after the recount was completed months later. By that time, Mr. Gore had already conceded and Mr. Bush had begun his first tenure as the American president.

The important lesson to learn from the American example is that while Mr. Gore and Democrats believed that they were denied victory by the US Supreme Court, who decided to uphold a decision made by a partisan State official, Ms. Harris, the American people did not resort to destruction and violence. They accepted the Court’s decision even when most were not convinced by the verdict. Mr. Gore emerged as a statesman, winning a Nobel Prize for his efforts to protect the environment. Ms. Harris’s political career was later stalled by political scandals.

Some, not all, complaints of voter fraud in Pakistan can be evaluated by statistical methods. Instances of ballot stuffing and fake vote counts are rather easy to detect. This is possible because of human beings’ inability to come up with random numbers. Beber and Scacco in a recent paper have shown that numbers made up by human beings are likely not to follow a random order. They found that the last digit in a genuine vote count is likely to occur with equal frequency, which is not the case in forged numbers. Often made up numbers end with zero and thus forged vote counts have a higher frequency of zeros being the last digit. A study of the 2009 Afghan presidential elections by the US Naval Research Laboratory revealed that the vote counts for President Karzai reported zeros as the last digit more frequently, suggesting rounding by tabulators.

Beber and Scacco also suggested that the pairs of adjacent digits (e.g., 67 or 45) are more likely to occur in manipulated vote tallies than the pairs of distant numerals (e.g., 17 or 29). Other statistical rules, such as Benford’s law, could also be useful in detecting voter fraud.

The Election Commission of Pakistan should make every effort to earn the trust of the electorate. Transparency will certainly help the Commission in this regard. The Commission should therefore release all verified data at the polling booth (precinct) level for registered voters, discarded ballots, and votes polled by each candidate. This will enable political parties, academics, and NGOs to review results and test against voter fraud.


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Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of

He tweets @regionomics

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (26) Closed

Anees May 17, 2013 09:49am

This guy always comes up with something that praises the US and presents it as a role model for everything.

Hussain May 17, 2013 04:42pm

I'm afraid the author is incorrect, Benford's law cannot be used in this scenario. A simple data base report that checks the number of registered votes against the votes polled is good enough.

Another note to the author, Occam's Rzaor, keep things simple.

concerned212 May 15, 2013 02:05pm
You cannot compare the US with Pakistan. In the US, whether Bush became the president or Al Gore, the public were still not going to have load-shedding issues, widespread corruption, militancy etc etc. In Pakistan, our core leaders are the ones involved in corruption and the destruction of Pakistan. We HAVE to raise our voices to get rid of pole-rigging and voting fraud.
saqib May 16, 2013 11:28pm
you are absolutely right. I live in usa and i totally agree with you. Comparing USA to Pakistan is like apples to oranges. Pakistanis are doing the right thing by protesting.
Khan May 16, 2013 06:35pm
Keep on thinking about new ways to end this menace for another 5 years. After five years Pakistan can afford another 5 years, another 5 years or may be 100 years to fix this never ending problem. The problem is just not the bogus votes. The real problem are the people behind this corruption. This corruption includes all of us.
Imanul Haque May 15, 2013 07:00pm
Dear Sirs, If malpractices are identified, Is there going to be any prosecution and bringing the concerned to the justice.
Raheel May 15, 2013 07:04pm
Good article but agian the example cited does not match with the environment in Pakistan. I wish the RULE OF LAW had some meaning in Pakistan then we can talk about stats and numbers. BTW you dont need to look at numbers when you can see with your eyes.
Abid May 15, 2013 10:59am
Sir this is Paksitan, not America. to be what you are ....
Zarmeen Zubair May 16, 2013 03:49pm
That means one should not stand and fight for what is right. Your article is totally opposite what Islam says. Islam says stand and fight for your rights. And even if u c the protests that are going in the country are peaceful protests. People are not breaking or destroying anything. They just wanna get heard and they just need justice.
Tabish May 15, 2013 02:42pm
That's interesting, voting process is a farce it seems, reminds me of a blog published on dawn on 7 May. if voting changed anything they'd make it illegal. I was also thinking how trusting could be pildat and gallop then. Everything is a farce...
Lubna May 16, 2013 08:04pm
And look where the world is today as a result of that electoral fraud back in the US presidential elections 2000! For one, America would have most probably not invaded Iraq tf the Democrats had rightfully won the election. Who knows what the world might have been like, a better place may be? So the lesson to be learned here is that election fraud should be minimised rather than over looked. Secondly, in Pakistan, first we need to build our institutions so they can work independently regardless of who is running the show before we can expect our people to accept the results in good faith. If the institutions that organise and are involved in the elections i.e ECP, Police, Local administration etc, dont appear to be in control or neutral, then the people will inevitably feel let down and frustrated.
A. Jafri May 16, 2013 04:14pm
I would rely on statistics any day over what I think I can see because what we see is perhaps the obvious (and not the hidden) and perhaps what we want to see and not what is really there. Statistics unearth facts without bias and if we can manage to even publish those stats it may move the ball forward where eventually public will demand answers from authorities. Lets rely on science than our gut feelings.
Mustafa Razavi May 16, 2013 04:22pm
Very often people who don't know a certain field have more faith in it than those who do. As a person who has taught statistics, let me tell you Dr. Sahib, it is not the way you have presented here.
Masoud May 17, 2013 08:09am
This was an election where peoples participated with great zeal but planned rigging & fabricated result subdued their enthusiasm. With the details of forgery & mass rigging coming to light, this election seems a farce. Supreme Court should take a serious notice of the rigging frauds committed in many polling stations. If this is not done the young voters would feel let down & would further loose interest in country building. When will the time come when justice overshadow injustice in Pakistan.
Brandsynario May 17, 2013 05:48am
The identity can be easily judged with the analytic if they re-count is some areas they should take these things into notice.
Sydney May 15, 2013 11:06am
Keep up the good work. I enjoy it, and good learning for the readers.
Akram May 15, 2013 03:13pm
some good ideas, we should be able to publish results by polling station on the internet too. That way everyone can verify their own mohallah.
Kdspirited May 15, 2013 03:11pm
Our democrazy, ECP or Political process is not mature enough to do this.
Atif May 15, 2013 03:01pm
A very interesting article by Murtaza Haider. Being a statistician yourself (the author), why don't you carry out a project like that particularly if you are strongly convinced by the arguments presented in the cited papers?
george May 15, 2013 01:29pm
But it can be doen, if the election commision sticks to its gun.
A. Jafri May 15, 2013 01:05pm
Good article and Pakistan would benefit from leveraging statics and applying analytics for not only voting pattern dissemination but in other areas such as crime fighting, economic policies, education etc etc. Just a note to author, your example of 2000 elections is incorrect. Al Gore won the popular vote however he lost on the electoral count which is the way USA president is elected. Exhaustive recounts in Florida resulted in a extremely narrow Bush victory over Gore in Florida legitimizing the electoral votes he received from state of Florida which essentially won him the national election. But that detail aside, your point on usage of analytics is right on target.
adeel May 15, 2013 12:44pm
so, election commission definitely have one more reason not to release the verified data at the polling booth...
Muhammad Shoaib Afridi May 15, 2013 12:16pm
Excellent Article Dr. Haider. I agree with most of the points you raised. And would like to add the following. From scientific point of view, the statistical analysis you mentioned can be used to identify areas where illegal voting is suspected. It will not be able to give you a definitive answer and will not be accepted by any court as a proof of rigging. As courts don't believe in probabilities unless it is 1. Yes, it can be used as a starting point. So in my opinion as a first step check the irregularities as you suggested and if irregularities are suspected then use other investigative methods to confirm the irregularities. For example finger prints on the ballot papers can be used to identify unique voters and how many votes each individual polled.
Good luck maray Pakistan May 17, 2013 02:22am
Did anyone ever think of installing cameras at the polling stations LOL.Funny how the army soldiers were not allowed inside while ECP officials were inside witnessing everything.
Muneeb May 15, 2013 12:05pm
the subject of the blog promised more solid material than the content presented..a bit disappointed
Riaz Ahmad May 16, 2013 04:05am
This is your Pakistan, corrupt to the core, unable and incapable of looking after its people; it looks as if you proudly prefer to keep it this way. With abundance of people with attitude like yours, it no wander the country is in dire straights.