Casting paper ballots in the era of the internet may appear antiquated, but there is good reason to be concerned about electronic voting technology.
Ultimately, the technology is destined to replace paper ballots, but the path to that goal is strewn with obstacles. No doubt, the technology carries much promise.
It can speed up the casting and counting of votes, as well as open the door to absentee voting, which in a country like Pakistan, that has high rates of internal migration, can bring a large chunk of the public into the electoral process.
However, wherever it has been applied, there have been considerable security concerns regarding the system.
In the US, for instance, many states refused to use electronic voting in the 2008 presidential elections after computer security experts showed that the votes could be altered in the system and their verification proves difficult because recounts could not be conducted in the absence of a paper record.
The Netherlands banned the technology in 2006 after the system’s vulnerabilities to hacking were exposed by an activist group.
Germany’s highest court banned electronic voting in an important judgement in 2009, saying that the verification of votes had become too complex because of it.
In fact, in countries across Europe and states across America, a backlash has been under way against the technology precisely because it makes verification impossible and because security of the software is difficult to guarantee.
In the largest democracy that uses the technology, ie India, there is also a growing chorus of voices cautioning against it.
Given these vulnerabilities, Pakistan ought to be very careful in adopting the technology, especially considering that every major election has been marred by allegations of rigging.
Major state institutions have been found to be involved in electoral malpractices, as in the 1990 elections that brought the IJI government to power.
Securing the ballot and verifying votes are already very large challenges for us, and evidence is mounting that electronic voting, far from being a solution, could in fact aggravate the problems.
Therefore, a graduated path towards adoption of this technology would be preferred. Perhaps the technology can be used initially in elections for the collective bargaining agent of major labour unions in PIA and OGDCL.
The next step could be its use in elections for local bodies, if and when they take place. Voters should be given a choice between paper and electronic ballots.
If the trial runs in these forums are successful, and a large number of voters opt for electronic voting, the next step can be to use the technology in by-elections.
But the technology should be considered for national elections only after it has proven itself in local polls, and there is demonstrated voter preference for casting ballots electronically. It could be many years before we get there, but it may be a good idea to start moving down that road.
Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2014