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Perils of i-voting

Updated September 07, 2018

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LONDON: I was overjoyed when I learned about the landmark Supreme Court judgement giving overseas Pakistanis the right to vote in Pakistan’s elections.

The UK-based World Congress of Overseas Pakistanis (WCOP) welcomed the development, too, being one of 14 petitioners demanding the right for overseas Pakistanis.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has launched a pilot project to allow an overseas vote in the forthcoming by-elections in 37 constituencies. Under the project, overseas Pakistanis holding National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP) and Pakistani Machine-Readable Passports (MRP) shall be allowed to register themselves as voters.

Some who registered for i-voting on the first day were so excited that they took to social media. “Registered for i-voting,” tweeted Shahzada Saleem, a UK-based HR professional. Hussain Hammad, a London-based chartered accountant, also shared his joy.

However, others have concerns primarily about the mechanism adopted for the implementation of the SC verdict.

Dr Iqtidar Cheema, director of the Birmingham-based Institute for Leadership and Community Development, expressed surprise at what he described as the haste with which the i-voting verdict was being implemented. “While the by-elections are just six weeks away, the i-voting process has not even been trialled before being introduced,” he told Dawn.

“The voters will be based outside the territorial jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and other Pakistani institutions, hence maintaining fairness and transparency will be a big challenge as logged i-votes can easily be changed,” he added.

Are the concerns expressed by Dr Cheema well-founded?

After all, we are living in a country that has a well-established electoral system and where everybody benefits from the rule of law. Yet, for those who know it really well, there are two Great Britain(s), especially when it comes to electoral processes.

One is a mature democracy. The political parties present their programme and then a free vote is allowed for local, regional or national representatives. Those supervising the voting process work on the basis of trust. They don’t physically visit your house to check how many people live there. There is no concept of an ID card in Britain and the only photo IDs are your passport or driving licence. There are no polling agents or heavily armed men to guard the ballot boxes. Your show the polling card posted to your home address and get your ballot paper. At the end of the day, these sealed ballot boxes are taken to town halls for the counting of votes.

Then there is another Britain where voting frauds occur. The registration of bogus votes as well as postal and proxy voting fraud are some of the malpractices that have been unearthed in criminal trials held over the years.

In 2005, a senior judge presiding over a special election court in Birmingham condemned the government for complacency in the face of posting voting fraud which, he said, would disgrace a “banana republic”. Richard Mawery QC found six Labour councillors guilty of carrying out “massive, systematic and organised” postal voting fraud to win two wards. He not only declared the results void, but also barred the men from standing again.

The same year five men, including two ex-councillors, were jailed in Bradford, another UK city with a substantial Pakistani/Kashmiri population, over a failed postal vote scam in the general election. The judge heard that the men plotted to get a Conservative candidate elected in Bradford West seat using fraudulent postal-vote applications.

Similar incidents of postal and proxy-voting fraud were reported from other areas with pre-dominantly Pakistani-origin or Asian populations such as Burnley, Walsall, Derby, Woking, Slough, Blackburn, and Oldham.

It is due to such incidents that these areas have been declared vulnerable to voting fraud by the UK Electoral Commission in its 2014 report.

It will be in this Britain that people will vote online for Pakistan’s by-elections. Where clan loyalties override voter’s own political views, the fears of voter coercion expressed by the Internet Voting Task Force (IVTF) in its report before the SC seems believable.

As pointed out in the IVTF report, nearly six million Pakistanis live abroad and are eligible to vote. They have the potential to influence the outcome of the elections and — in case of a system hack or large-scale buying or selling of votes — will have an adverse effect on the elections. If any such thing happens, neither the voter not the ECP will have any remedy available. As mentioned by Dr Iqtidar Cheema, the ECP or Pakistan’s judicial authorities will not have any jurisdiction to investigate such irregularities.

“The vast majority of Pakistan-origin people living in the UK are dual nationals and they have a British passport and NICOP,” a Bradford-based journalist told Dawn. “Now the ECP i-voting website asks them for details of their NICOP and Pakistani passports for the registration of their vote, which they don’t have.”

There is also some concern here that granting the voting right to overseas Pakistanis will further hinder their integration in British society. “They are already lagging behind,” said Raja Farooq Khan, a Birmingham-based accountant. “Political mobilisation as envisaged in the ECP scheme will take them further away from the mainstream.”

Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2018