Electoral reforms dominate the news cycle. Government and opposition figures have traded heated volleys back and forth on media and on Twitter, but one gets a sense of people talking past each other, of virtue signalling rather than genuine honest engagement. And, more critically, there is a distinct lack of homework across the board.

Consider the overriding issue of trust. The Prime Minister claims that Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) are “the only answer to reclaim the credibility of elections.” The opposition believes it’s just another means to “steal elections”, of “a wolf taking care of sheep.” This is a familiar refrain in the history of democracy, a spin on a quote commonly misattributed to Josef Stalin: “Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.”

Which side is correct? Research studies attest that EVMs have markedly reduced electoral fraud in India, particularly by curbing ballot box-stuffing and booth capture, and by rapid reporting of election results. EVMs have also been a resounding success in Brazil, where they were introduced some 25 years ago and, apart from minor hiccups, they continue to enjoy a good reputation.

But right next door to Brazil we have Venezuela, which introduced EVMs around the same time and the contrast in public perception could not be more stark. Distrust is so pronounced that activists sarcastically comment that President Nicolás Maduro would even defeat Jesus Christ on the ballot. Paper trails and machine audits fail to allay these concerns.

International researchers have identified suspicious patterns in voting results dating back to the Chavez era. In recent Constitutional Assembly elections, the EVM vendor Smartmatic, itself issued a public statement confirming that turnout figures were manipulated by at least one million votes. Fraud concerns are also routine in countries such as India, the Philippines and, lately, even the US.

The questions we really need to be asking ourselves: why are EVMs successful in some countries and not in others? Can we identify the winning factors? And, considering EVMs specifically, can we build them in a way to maximise the element of trust?

Instead of simply focusing on outdated machines, shouldn’t Pakistan be building an electoral system where individual citizens can verify for themselves that the votes they cast actually count? Technology makes this possible

The government is promoting India-inspired EVMs — low-cost, compact machines with a simple counting mechanism for prompt reporting of results, and a voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) to detect machine faults and resolve disputes. The weakest link here are the administrators and the polling staff, who have to be explicitly trusted to not tamper with the machines, stuff the ballot box, or violate the integrity of the paper trail. This EVM model is now being increasingly challenged, even within India.

And there is growing evidence that the world is starting transition to a novel and far superior voting paradigm. There have been revolutionary developments in election technology recently, which offer radical transparency in the conduct of elections.

Consider this hypothetical scenario: on polling day, our citizen, Azra, goes to the polling station and identifies herself as an eligible voter. In the booth, she chooses her candidate on the machine and presses the button. The machine records her vote and spits out a paper trail, just like a traditional EVM, but with one notable addition: it also prints and issues Azra a receipt to take home, a small slip with a unique serial number and a verification code comprising a string of random-looking characters. This code lets her track her vote cryptographically. The receipt does not reveal her candidate choice. Azra cannot use the receipt to sell her vote.

After polls close and results have been announced, election staff post copies of all receipts on the ECP website. Azra uses the serial number to find hers and compares it to the physical copy she holds in her hand. If anyone has altered her vote, the two copies will not match, and she can file a complaint using her physical receipt as hard evidence.

Statistical analyses indicate that if even a tiny fraction of voters were to verify their votes in this way, they would almost certainly detect any large-scale rigging. Azra can also press a button to confirm that the election result was correctly computed.

The cryptography which makes this possible is complicated but not unfathomable. Patriotic-minded citizens with a programming background could sit down for a few evenings and write this software for themselves — basically, independent audits. QR codes, smartphone apps, and mobile SMS services could make this whole process a breeze. These ‘verifiable voting’ solutions are being developed for EVMs and internet voting.

This paradigm is now the de facto holy grail of electronic voting — where every citizen would have the ability to rigorously audit every critical step of the election, while sitting in his or her home. The technology is backed by leading information security specialists and expert bodies.

The US National Academy of Sciences — arguably the most authoritative scientific body in the world — is particularly emphatic in its recommendation: do not even think of conducting internet elections unless it’s a verifiable voting system; and do not deploy this for internet elections, without deploying it on EVMs first.

Such systems have been piloted several times in small elections, including state-level elections in Australia. The first national deployment was in the parliamentary elections of Estonia in 2019. We’re on the cusp of commercial development: Microsoft has partnered with leading EVM vendors, including Smartmatic, Hart InterCivic, Dominion Voting Systems, Clear Ballot, and others, to trial this technology. Ambitious pilots are planned in collaboration with Columbia University. The pandemic has slowed things down, but change is afoot.

There is a grand opportunity here for us to leapfrog on to this wave, but we’re completely in the dark. We have no technical expertise in election technology. We are divorced from international trends. Our national debate mostly recycles talking points that are over a decade old.

And the real irony here is that — unless we educate ourselves on a war footing — it is safe to assume that, even as our brand-new shiny India-inspired EVMs start rolling off the production line, India itself will probably be moving on to verifiability. The Election Commission of India, in collaboration with IIT-Madras, has been actively studying Estonia’s new voting system.

A pilot was scheduled for municipal elections in Hyderabad last year. Public awareness is also high. In my 10 years in this field, the most eloquent and compelling argument I’ve seen for this technology actually comes from Indian civil society. This is from a citizens’ group report I profiled earlier for Eos, with the provocative title, ‘Is the Indian EVM and VVPAT System Fit for Democratic Elections?’

To paraphrase their argument: India prides itself as the world’s largest democracy. Existing EVMs have “flaws [that] appear to be near-fatal to electoral democracy.” Would it not be appropriate that elections also embody the principles of democracy? Why not build a system where individual citizens can verify and audit elections to their own satisfaction — that they confirm for themselves that the votes they cast actually count?

We sorely need this kind of thinking in Pakistan.

The author teaches at NUST. He has a postdoc in election security and advises the government and the ECP on election technology. He can be reached at taha.ali@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 16th, 2021

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