ISLAMABAD: The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) signed an agreement on Friday to procure electronic voting machines (EVMs) and biometric verification machines (BVMs) for trial run in by-elections that will determine if the technology can be employed in the next general election.

“Once these EVMs and BVMs machines are delivered by vendors in 10 weeks, they will be used in multiple pilot projects in upcoming by-elections to see their results,” ECP Secretary Babar Yaqub Fateh Muhammad said while addressing a contract signing ceremony here.

An international tender was floated for inviting bids of EVMs and BVMs last year. Six vendors of EVMs and five of BVMs participated in the bidding.

Three firms “technically qualified” for supplying EVMs and two for BVMs.

During the whole project lifecycle all stakeholders, including the parliamentary committee concerned and relevant ministries and intelligence agencies, were taken on board.

The ECP secretary said that all stakeholders, including voters, lawmakers, media, civil society organisations and observers, would be asked to witness the testing of these new technologies.

Director General (Admin) retired Brig Abbas Ali and Chief Executive Officer of M/s Smartmatic International Holding inked the agreement on behalf of their respective organisations for procurement of 150 EVMs.

The ECP secretary said this was a pilot project and the commission wanted to see the results by using the system in by-elections, adding that at a later stage the commission would decide to use EVMs and BVMs in general elections keeping in view their merits and demerits.

He pointed out that the new EVMs would cost around Rs35 billion for more than 0.3 million polling booths.

Answering a question, he said the quality of EVMs and BVMs was top priority of the government and in this regard a committee comprising experts from different organisations had also been constituted. He said that training of election officers and staff, general awareness of voters and better coordination of ECP staff with voters was also part of the pilot project to introduce a new system in the country.

The secretary said that introduction of electronic voting machines and a biometric system was part of bringing reforms in the electoral system and the decision had been taken after feedback of previous elections.

Manipulation concerns

A senior ECP official told Dawn that the commission believed that a hasty decision on the use of these technologies could be a recipe for disaster.

He said that EVMs were just as prone to fraud — if not more — as traditional polling methods.

“The software used by EVMs could be manipulated to affect results,” he observed. He said that EVMs installed at polling stations were vulnerable to hacking via bluetooth signals and other forms of wireless connectivity. In fact, the machines could even be tampered with while in storage, he pointed out.

Speaking on merits and demerits associated with EVMs and BVMs, he said that it was a myth that EVMs could make the electoral exercise 100 per cent fair and transparent. He cited the examples of six European countries which switched back to conventional voting methods after abandoning EVMs because of a lack of transparency and trust.

The Supreme Court of Germany had also declared EVMs unconstitutional, he said.

Though India had conducted three general elections using EVMs — in 2004, 2009 and 2014 — criticism of the voting machines had been severe and the credibility of the process was questionable.

The ECP official said that during an interaction with the Indian election authorities, it emerged that there was no mechanism available for ascertaining if an EVM had been tampered with.

They said that it was not possible to check 1.4 million machines to ascertain which ones were manipulated. The EVMs were currently in use in 11 countries, including the US, Canada, Australia, France, Austria, India and Estonia.

On biometrics, the ECP official revealed that there was a 10-15 per cent margin for error in the biometric data as the thumb ridges of individuals involved in manual labour, or those suffering from skin-related diseases, would not have matching biometrics. Old age also made biometric verification through fingerprints more difficult, he said.

Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2017

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