The economy of EVMs

Published September 20, 2021
The induction of electronic voting machines in the next general elections is a costly proposition. — AFP/File
The induction of electronic voting machines in the next general elections is a costly proposition. — AFP/File

THE induction of electronic voting machines (EVM) in the next general elections is a costly proposition. The EVM-based elections in 2023, according to relevant circles, will double the cost of the extensive exercise.

“If the government decides to bulldoze the opposition in parliament to pass the required amendment in the Election Act, 2017, and somehow succeeds to prevail over the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), which is currently defiant, it will still have to justify the financial cost of EVM at a time when the country is grappling with the pandemic fallout beside all the other challenges,” an economist noted privately.

Background research confirmed that no formal exercise to assess the financials of the proposed switch-over to EVMs has yet been carried out. Rough assessments — based on the assumption that the country would need 100,000 polling stations across the land in 2023 and there will be four polling booths per station — project the need for a minimum of 400,000 EVMs in case the elections are not staggered and held the same day across the country.

At its core, any discussion over the use of electronic voting machines is part of the larger development debate in the country

For convenience, let us take the unit price of EVM as worked out by Telephone Industries Pakistan (TIP) and round it off at Rs100,000 per unit. The back-of-the-envelope simple calculation throws up the figure of Rs40 billion that the exchequer will have to dish out for just the machines. Add up logistics, storage, staff training, security arrangements, etc, and it can easily climb up to around Rs50-60bn.

In the last general elections, with over 85,000 polling stations, the ECP had spent Rs28bn, in 2013 the corresponding amount was Rs4.7bn, and it was a mere Rs1.8bn in 2008, ECP officials confirmed to Dawn from Islamabad. That being so, the cost of the next EVM-based general elections will actually be twice as much as the ECP spent collectively on the last three elections.

Though President Dr Arif Alvi did promulgate an ordinance earlier this year which paved the way for the use of the new system, the ball was set rolling by Fawad Chaudhry when he had the Science and technology portfolio in the federal cabinet. According to him, the move aims at ensuring the transparency of the process and make the election exercise more credible.

The ECP has so far been resisting the government initiative. It raised 37 objections to the plan in a document submitted to the Senate standing committee on parliamentary affairs.

“If pushed through in haste, the government’s EVM scheme can backfire and make 2023 elections embarrassingly more controversial,” said a senior ECP official. “There is a qualitative difference between laboratory models and commercial production,” he said while talking about the demonstrations staged by multiple local manufacturers, berating their capacity and capability for commercial production.

“Ordering EVMs from overseas suppliers is dangerous and prohibitively expensive at the same time. It involves high data security risk and avoidable exposure of the electoral system to chances of interference by hostile elements,” he said.

Besides technical reservations, the ECP observed in its note to the Senate standing committee that the switch from manual to EVM-based process will take time much longer than the two years left in the tenure of the sitting government.

“Identifying, ordering and securing EVMs will not be sufficient for the switchover. The whole ecosystem will have to be evolved. It is not advisable, therefore, to induct EVMs in the next general elections even if the government decides in principle to make the switch.

“The Election Commission is an autonomous constitutional body vested with the responsibility of conducting elections. The government should restrain its overzealous members from trying to bully the institution into submission. It will create new fissures that the country can ill-afford in these trying times.”

The senior source believed that the commercial interests were manipulating somehow, and mentioned the names of a few local and foreign private EVM manufacturers aspiring for the deal.

“It can’t be an accident that the TIP, a public company, which produced the first prototype back in 2012-13, has been conveniently dropped from the list of manufacturers that is under discussion at different official forums,” he added.

When contacted over the phone in Haripur, the TIP team sounded low at having been sidelined at this stage. The staff members were keen to project their case in the media as a deserving contender for the EVM supply deal. “It is rather sad that replicas of the EVM developed by TIP years ago are commanding attention. Despite years of neglect, TIP has the capacity and the wherewithal to mass-produce EVMs,” Zahid Gul, a member of the TIP technical team, told Dawn.

He regretted the lack of technical knowledge on the part of the ECP and contested the claim about risk exposure in EVM usage. “Ours is a standalone complete unit not linked with any network or app. It can detect double voting or counting errors because of the biometric system embedded in the device. It is simple and compact,” he stressed.

Haq Nawaz Baloch, another TIP advocate, informed that TIP EVMs were tested at four polling stations in a bye-election in Multan and its performance was “impeccable”.

Calling “baseless” reports in a section of media regarding the floatation of the tender to acquire EVMs, a senior ECP source confirmed that the commission had not floated any such tender. “These reports are planted. We don’t know who is behind them, but those peddling them can’t be the country’s well-wishers,” he said.

The record of the cost of previous general elections and its break-up has not been shared on the ECP website. The information might be embedded in election reports, but these documents are not accessible. The ECP officials Dawn approached were reluctant to come on record citing the government’s hostility towards the media.

Free and fair elections are pivotal to democracy and development. Only a government that derives authority from the will of the citizens can promote political and economic freedoms. The debate on the use of EVMs, therefore, is part of the larger development debate in the country.

“The cost of EVM-based system can be contained if the government decides to stagger the election process,” an independent observer said. “It is a major move and demands the backing of all major political parties to succeed,” he concluded.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 20th, 2021

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