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A day after the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) laun­ched its website for overseas voters, election observers expres­sed scepticism about the system’s credibility and transparency.

Earlier, the Internet Voting Task Force (IVTF) — formed by the Election Com­mission of Pakistan (ECP) in April to conduct a technical audit of the system — had identified numerous security vulnerabilities and oversights, advising against use of the e-voting system.

It had pointed out that though other countries had employed e-voting systems, none had an overseas population as large as Pakistan. Nearly six million citizens living abroad were eligible voters, it stated, adding that the huge number of voters had the potential to influence the outcome of the elections and — in case of a system hack — would have an adverse effect on the “formation and composition of the next government”.

Election Commission of Pakistan is confident RTS failure won’t happen again

“Experts have already said that the i-voting system can be easily subjected to cyber attacks or manipulation. Besides obvious risks, the registration and voting procedures [explained on the overseas website] point towards two discrepancies,” said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Trans­parency (Pildat), an NGO working for promotion of democracy in the country.

According to the ECP rules of overseas voting as available on the website, eligible voters should possess a valid National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP), valid Machine Readable Pass­port (MRP), and a valid e-mail address.

Speaking to Dawn, Mr Mehboob expressed concerns: “Firstly, a large number of Pakistanis — especially in the Middle East — would be excluded from the voting process as they will not have an email address. Secondly, there is nothing that can ensure that the person is freely using his right to vote online and not being coerced by someone.”

The Pildat president said the exercise was good for experimentation but its credibility was questionable.

Citing similar concerns, Sarwar Bari of the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) said that the i-vote system did not provide secrecy of the ballot, which is a violation of Clause 94 of the Elections Act 2017 and Article 226 of the Constitution. “There is no way you can monitor coercion online; hence nobody can ensure its [poll results’] quality,” the Fafen secretary general told Dawn.

Predicting a low turnout online, he said: “This is a difficult procedure which is all being done in haste. Additionally, majority of Pakistanis in the Middle East will not even understand how to use the system. The turnout will be low.”

‘No chance of breakdown’

Commenting on criticism of the internet facility’s credibility, ECP spokesman Nadeem Qasim maintained that they had taken various measures to ensure that the electoral process remained secure and reliable.

Speaking to Dawn, he said if a user was found to be involved in fraud or coercion, the commission would blacklist him. “The ECP will compile a list of blacklisted users after the voting process. People on the blacklist will not be allowed to vote ever again,” he asserted.

Explaining the online verification process, Mr Qasim said the system was built with certain elements involving information linked with Nadra to ensure the voter’s identity. “The verification will be done at the time of registration as well as before a vote is cast,” he said. Finally, if the ECP is not satisfied with the electoral process, it will disregard [overseas] votes, he added.

When asked what the commission was doing to prevent another server breakdown given the commission’s recent experience with a pilot technical system — Results Transmission System (RTS) — that marred July polls with controversies as it crashed on election night, the ECP spokesman expressed confidence that the problem would not recur.

“By Sept 15 we will have the number of registered [overseas] voters. Our IT experts will then prepare and expect the intensity of [turnout] load on the website on polling day. So there is no chance of a server breakdown,” he stressed.

Talking about overseas voters’ eligibility requirements, the spokesman pointed out that people without machine readable passports (MRP) were not eligible to vote in the upcoming by-polls.

“For October by-polls, voters can only register if they have both a valid MRP and a NICOP number. Once this round of voting is done, then the legislation may be amended to rely on NICOP only for voting,” he said.

Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2018