Election rigging 101: How to steal a mandate

How is the polling process exploited for personal advantage and how are voter perceptions manipulated?
Published July 19, 2018

The general perception is that apart from the elections that were held in 1970 — which saw the then-East Pakistan break away from the West — none of the elections in Pakistan have really been “free” or “fair”. The Free and Fair Election Network’s (Fafen) General Secretary, Sarwar Bari, agrees.

Historically speaking, election rigging in Pakistan has occurred at multiple levels, with the connivance of state institutions, the establishment, polling officers and, of course, political parties and candidates.

The rigging process can be broadly divided into three categories: pre-poll rigging, polling day-rigging and post-poll rigging.

Here, we break down how the polling process can be exploited.

Pre-poll rigging

Manipulating the census

Yes. Manipulating the census.

The census is one of the first and most important parts of the election process, as it is what determines how many seats any particular settlement (province/district, etc) will be allocated. The number of seats given to a settlement is decided according to the population settled there, with approximately 780,000 people on average being assigned one National Assembly seat in this year's calculation.

If the population of an area is shown to be lesser or greater than it actually is, the voting power of the people living in that district can be diluted or boosted compared to other parts of the country.

Therefore, the population census remains at the top of the priority list of someone planning to rig the election.

Now you know why some political parties have been crying themselves hoarse since last year’s census exercise.

The main players in Sindh — PPP and MQM — had demanded an audit as they claimed the population of the province as a whole, and Karachi specifically, had been understated to deny it more seats than it should have gotten.

Despite a government promise of an audit of 1 per cent of the census blocks, the review never happened. The census results were released as is, and Karachi may (if the parties are to be believed) be getting less seats than is its due.

"But is it really that easy to rig a census?"

Fafen's Bari says that although evidence does not exist to prove that rigging in the recent census took place, serious questions have indeed been raised because of its procedure.

He notes that the standard post-census practice of randomly sampling 0.5pc of households to confirm the broader census findings was never done, primarily because the entire exercise happened in haste. The random sampling would have confirmed that the census results were correct unless discrepancies were found.


As discussed earlier, the ECP allots a quota of seats to every district according to its population (as counted in the census).

Once the census results are in, the ECP creates constituencies following a set of rules, which (theoretically) constrain the commission into being fair when demarcating constituencies.

In theory, all NA constituencies, and those within respective provinces, have to be of the same size, with a maximum 10pc variation in their constituent population. But which areas (mohallas, galis, goths) fall into which constituency within that district is still for the commission to decide.

Therefore, if you want to rig at the constituency level, the delimitation exercise is what you need to target.

"Gerrymandering refers to drawing up constituencies in a way that one political rival is at a position of disadvantage in polls regardless of voter support"

This could mean having the areas where economically disadvantaged voters reside clubbed together into a particular constituency so that a candidate appealing to those with lower/no income has a better chance of winning it. The contra is also true.

Again, although there exists no evidence to suggest malpractice in delimitation this time around, a number of regulations have been flouted in the delimitation exercise.

“The 10pc variation rule has been broken in around 81 National Assembly constituencies and hundreds of provincial assembly constituencies,” Bari told Dawn.com, adding that he fears gerrymandering may have happened.

Gerrymandering refers to the amoral practice of drawing up constituencies in a way that one political rival is at a position of disadvantage in polls regardless of the voter support.

The practice of gerrymandering serves two basic purposes: it dilutes an opponent's voting support across many districts and also confines the voters to a single district.

Click to enlarge.

Consequently, this tactic, which is essentially the most sinister form of pre-poll rigging as it happens behind closed doors, can leave a targeted political party's constituency results worse than what its actual vote bank ought to have commanded.

Very interesting account of Lahore's new constituencies here — a good read for anyone following the election closely.

Get your opponent’s nomination papers rejected

This election season, the nomination papers of candidates have come under greater scrutiny as the Supreme Court itself has shown a lot interest in the matter. And, like previous elections, the nomination papers of a number of potential candidates have been rejected by returning officers (RO).

While there are legal ways of challenging the acceptance of your opponent’s nomination papers, like finding something controversial from their past or present, this alone does not guarantee that they will be disqualified.

The candidates attempt, and at times succeed, in getting the RO on their side through shady means, making the contest easier for them, the Fafen official says.

However, ousted candidates have recourse to higher courts for appeal, and it is generally difficult to sideline someone unless you hit gold digging around in their personal affairs.

Rigging on the polling day

Rigging on the day of elections is perhaps the most important (and outrageous) way of turning the tide of an election, and there are multiple ways to make that happen.

Capture the polling booth

Once a candidate has done their best in pre-poll rigging, the next opportunity presents itself on polling day itself.

The best bet for the candidates is to capture polling booths in areas they exercise influence in. They do it by forcing election officials to either side with them, or keep mum about what is happening.

Fafen’s Bari says that this is the most common type of rigging, and it mostly occurs in connivance with election officers. However, it happens at perhaps 15-20pc of the polling stations.

But that, he feels, is enough to sway an election.

“You rig as much as you can hide,” he says.

Bari notes that the practice is easiest at women’s polling booths, where burqas come in handy and lists of dead people (who have not been expunged from the electoral rolls) help riggers cast extra ballots in their candidate's favour.

Manipulate the vote count

“Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali won the [2013] election by [around] 4,000 votes. [Yet, approximately] 30,000 votes were rejected [during the vote count],” Bari recalls.

This is just an example of how even the vote counting process is not free of flaws.

A look at the NA-226 Nasirababd-cum-Jaffarabad results indeed reveals that 25,562 votes were rejected while the win margin between Jamali and Mir Saleem Ahmed Khosa was less than 6,000.

Bari says that, in all, the win margin was lower than the number of votes rejected in around 35 constituencies in 2013 elections, which means that there could have been a different winner had the rejected votes been considered valid.

But how does this become possible?

The Presiding Officers play an important role in the count-rigging process as they are the ones who need to ensure all polling agents are witness to the counting process. At times, however, the polling agents are excluded from the process, allowing for numbers to be tweaked at will, leaving the runners-up with no proof to challenge the election at a future date.

This time around, however, the count-rig will not be as easy. The Elections Act 2017 has now made it mandatory for all the important forms, including Form 45 (previously Form 14), to carry signatures of all polling agents present.

Form 45 is a statement of the vote count which, when signed by the representative polling agents of political parties, can easily be tallied with the final figures released by the ECP as it contains a breakdown of the number of votes received from each station.

Earlier, the candidates had no proof of rigging if they claimed that last minute changes were made to the count.

Bribe the voters

While some may argue that (usually unfulfilled) election promises of development by your opponents are in themselves a form of inducement offered to the voters, there are more direct ways of ensuring that the voters in your area vote for you.

We’ve all heard about votes being sold for qeemay walay naans, plates of biryani and for Rs500 envelopes, but at most times there are larger stakes offered to the influential people of the area to play for the rigger's side.

This translates into the influential making sure the people under his/her power cast their votes however they have been instructed to. The 'voting instructions' are usually accompanied with overt or implied threats of serious physical and material harm.

Bribing the influential also works better than bribing individual voters (at least in theory) as it is almost impossible to ensure that the person who just had biryani at your expense will also stamp your symbol on the ballot paper.

Perception manipulation

Another manner in which political parties and actors can impact elections is by manipulating perceptions using print, electronic and social media, as well as dubious surveys and polls.

The media as well as rigged surveys can be 'controlled' to present a deliberately skewed image of a particular party and the chances of its victory in a competition.

In Pakistan, rumours of the “powers that be” favouring a particular party, spread through new and traditional media, also impacts voter perceptions.

One can also exercise pressure on the media and make sure a rival party or parties do not get enough airtime or favourable coverage.

All of these measures can tilt the 'swing vote' — the vote of people who are undecided and 'go with the flow', so to speak — in favour of a one particular party.

The NA-120 model

The NA-120 by-election held last year on the seat left vacant by the disqualification of former premier Nawaz Sharif was 'unique', so to speak.

The PML-N complained that its Union Council chairman and other local leaders were not only threatened via phone calls, but also picked up a day before polling was set to take place, only to be released later.

Videos also surfaced on social media claiming that voters carrying 'slips' marked with PML-N symbols were being sent back from the polling stations.

The slips referred to are pieces of paper handed out at party stalls on the day of an election with useful information that can help voters cast their vote. The insinuation was that people at the polling booths recognised N-League voters with the help these slips and tried to prevent them from voting for their candidate.

All of these measures were alleged to be a part of a broader election engineering process which also included the propping up of smaller parties, including the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan and the Milli Muslim League, as opposition to the PML-N. Since then, these parties have gained more ground and threaten to cannibalise on PML-N's voter base.

The PML-N has recently alleged that its party leaders are being coerced into joining other political parties, especially its fiercest rival — the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) — which has been overwhelmed by the arrival of so-called electables from rival camps.

However, it is pertinent to mention here that these claims, put forward mainly by the PML-N, have never really been verified definitively. Nonetheless, they are serious charges which ought to have been investigated but never were.

The 2013 ‘RO Elections’ model

Soon after the results of the 2013 elections were announced, Imran Khan and his party had alleged that the elections had been rigged with the connivance of ECP-appointed returning officers.

The PTI had alleged that the ROs amended the result of the elections after polling ended. Khan claimed that when the time came to tabulate the results, no one was allowed in the rooms, which was against the rules.

He later also said that the Army had been involved in the rigging as its personnel were the ones who stopped representatives of political parties from entering the rooms where the results were being tabulated.

Signs of possible rigging voters should watch out for

• The absence of a party’s polling agent from the polling station. This could mean that a rival political party or another power has control of the station.

• Camera/gaps on secrecy screen at the booth: means the ballot is not secret.

• CNICs not being duly checked by the ECP-appointed polling officer. If voters' identity is not being verified, it could be that it is being done so that one person can vote more than once.

• Polling officer not announcing loudly the name of the voter so agents can cut them off their list. This is again related to verification of voters.

• No stamp on vote and/or counter file: the votes cast will later not be considered valid.

How can I report rigging?

• File a complaint with the political party.

• Approach monitoring teams of the ECP.

ECP complaint numbers: (051) 9210812-6 — Fax: (051) 9210809-11

• Inform the presiding officer.

• Report malpractice/discrepancies on social media. Make videos wherever allowed.

• Report to independent national and international election observers.

Pre-rigged elections?

Some political parties, especially the PML-N, have already begun crying foul, with their candidates being threatened, arrested by NAB and returning party tickets at the last moment. If these allegations are true, these are all signs of pre-poll rigging. However, substantive evidence to this effect has yet to be collected.

It remains to be seen whether the kind of coercion being anticipated by Nawaz and his party (denying people the right to vote; manipulating the count) or the kind of rigging Imran accused PML-N of last time (RO elections) still take place.

Fafen's Bari feels that rigging on the polling day at least will be tougher this time around as provisions of the Elections Act ensure increased participation of political party representatives in the counting process, making it more transparent than it was in the past.

Still, the recently held Senate elections have provided a blueprint for post-election rigging that should concern voters and give sleepless nights to now out-of-favour political parties: what if their mandates are stolen?

Design by Mushba Said

Information compiled from websites of ECP and Fafen