ISLAMABAD: An automated Results Management System (RMS) is the best way to ensure better electoral practices, but Pakistan’s experience with using such a system in the 2013 general elections was not completely successful because it lacked legislative cover, an electoral expert told Dawn on Wednesday.

Experts, lawmakers and stakeholders at ‘Technology in Elections’ – a seminar hosted by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – were also alarmed by the prohibitively high costs associated with electronic voting machines (EVMs) and agreed that it was better to reform electoral practices rather than wasting money on technology that may soon be obsolete.

Ronan McDermott, a leading expert on electoral technologies, briefed officials and members of a parliamentary subcommittee on electoral reforms on the case for and against modern electoral technologies, such as EVMs, electronic voter identification (EVID) and RMS.

Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) retired Justice Sardar Mohammad Raza Khan was particularly troubled by the great expense of EVMs when Mr McDermott said a normal machine could cost as much as $1,000. “The more sophisticated the system, the more reliable it will be, but also more expensive,” he said.

While most lawmakers, and even the CEC, agreed that the RMS was the best idea moving forward, nobody seemed to dwell on the reason for its failure when it was piloted with UNDP support in the 2013 general elections. “One of the reasons for this could be that it had no legislative cover; elections officials were just not bothered about it and so if it broke down or there was no one available who was trained to operate it, it was just abandoned,” one of the electoral experts at the conference told Dawn.

Experts, lawmakers alarmed by prohibitive cost of using electronic voting machines

When Mr Zahid Hamid, who heads the parliamentary subcommittee on electoral reforms, pointed out that it had been decided that the number of polling stations in the country would be increased, he calculated that the bill for the hardware alone would come close to $300 million.

The CEC was also alarmed when an electoral expert from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) pointed out that any technology acquired now would become obsolete in a decade, meaning it could only be used for one or two elections.

Mr McDermott also pointed out that EVMs were also specifically programmed with propriety software, so those acquired to conduct general elections may not necessarily work for the local government elections, and said they would be a “questionable investment”.

After the presentation, PML-Q Senator Mushahid Hussain remarked that perhaps EVMs were not right for Pakistan. “Unless we can see the paper trail, the process will have no veracity,” he said. PPP Senator Saeed Ghani stressed the need to reform the system, adding that unless the ECP was willing to change, elections would never be free or fair.

PTI MNA Arif Alvi said, “Countries use technology to support their systems, not replace them.” He admitted that he once believed that EVMs were a panacea for all electoral ills, but added that ground realities had shaken his belief. He also seconded Mushahid Hussain’s call for a paper-trail redundancy in the electoral process.

He also challenged the view that expensive technology should not be purchased for fear that it will be outdated. Holding up his iPhone, he said that if he had waited until the latest model phone came out, he would never have brought a cell phone.

MQM deputy parliamentary leader Farooq Sattar insisted that land reforms were an essential part of electoral reforms and demanded that there be checks on the sources of funding for political parties as well to curtail the excessive use of money in election campaigns.

Making a case against EVMs, Mr McDermott pointed out only six countries: India, UAE, Bhutan, Venezuela, Namibia and Mongolia, used EVMs for all of its voters, while only 12 countries, including US and Russia, had incorporated EVMs into some part of their electoral process.

To a question about India, he said that though India’s electoral record was quite robust, the international community “only has their word for it”, since India does not allow national or international observers to monitor its elections.

Media walkout

A recurring theme at Wednesday’s discussion was the need for public trust. At one point, referring to the German constitution, Mr McDermott said that it required that the electoral system be understandable for all citizens and explained this was why Germany did not use EVMs.

There was also a great deal of discussion in the role the media could play in promoting better understanding of electoral practices, and also criticism of the media’s need for immediate results.

However, the media was conspicuous by its absence from the discussion after reporters protested and walked out of the session because cameras were not allowed into the conference room.

Media representatives were also missing from the panel of stakeholders invited to the discussion reforms.

Meanwhile, the parliamentary sub-committee on electoral reforms, which also met on Wednesday, was briefed by ECP and Nadra officials on the use of EVMs and the actions being taken against fake and bogus CNIC-holders.

Briefing reporters after the in-camera meeting, committee chairman Zahid Hamid said the ECP had assured them that it would complete its pilot projects with EVMs and a biometric voter identification system in six months.

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2016


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