FINALLY, the law has been passed by parliament. The government hopes that things will now move swiftly and that the law will ensure that the next general election scheduled in about 24 months is conducted using Electronic Voting Machines. The efficiency with which things move in Pakistan especially in the government can be gauged by the fact that the EVM law passed on Nov 17 took 16 days to travel next door to receive presidential assent to become an act of parliament. This tells us something about how realistic expectations are about the deployment of EVMs in the coming general election.
The amendment in the electoral law was passed with a narrow margin of just 18 votes — 221 members supporting the bill while 203 opposing — indicating a sharp divide not only within parliament but also society. If this wide gulf is not bridged — and chances of this happening have drastically dwindled after the passage of the law, the prospects of peaceful elections — let alone free and fair ones — are seriously in doubt.
In the bleak scenario of no cross-party consensus, a silver lining has emerged in the form of the amendments which the government has introduced in the EVM legislation during the joint sitting. These little-known amendments, probably introduced on the initiative of saner elements within the government, have relatively improved the bill that was passed by the National Assembly on June 10. The final text of the Elections (Amendment) Act, 2021, as assented to by the president, has subjected the procurement and use of EVMs to “secrecy and security”. The addition of the phrase “in the prescribed manner” in the Act also seems to have improved the flexibility of the law and enhanced the discretion of the ECP, contrary to the view expressed by some federal ministers that the ECP is bound to use EVMs in the full spectrum of the next general election.
The procurement and use of EVMs in all constituencies in the 2023 poll will be very difficult.
Although the ECP has been asked to procure and use EVMs by amending Section 103 of the Elections Act 2017, there are dozens of other sections within the law which were written in the context of the paper ballot-based system and need to be suitably amended before the EVMs can be put to use.
The greatest challenges to the successful introduction of EVMs, however, relate to the technical and logistic aspects of the project. The most critical question is whether the ECP will be able to complete all the essential steps for the procurement and deployment of EVMs within the time remaining before polling day.
The ECP has constituted three committees to examine the legal, technical-cum-logistic and financial aspects of the smooth introduction of EVMs. These committees are supposed to present their findings in four weeks but the entire process of procurement and use of EVMs will take much longer.
The first in the order of priorities for the ECP should be prescribing technical specifications for the most suitable EVM for Pakistani conditions. Although the Indian example appears to be relevant, our electoral system is substantially different from theirs. We hold assembly (national and provincial) elections in the entire country on the same day whereas the Indian Lok Sabha election is held separately from the state assembly elections. The Lok Sabha election is held in phases and not in the entire country on the same day. We, in Pakistan, declare preliminary election results within nine hours of the closing of polling whereas in India, the compilation of results takes weeks after the close of polls. These differences have a substantial impact on the design and quantity of the EVMs required.
Some key decisions on the choice of EVM features will also alter the scenario for logistics and the quantity of EVMs. For example, same touch-screen balloting units may be used for the national and provincial assemblies poll while separate units may be required in case the push-button palette type of machines are used. An entirely different design may be required for local government elections as multiple votes need to be cast for various councils. Making several of these informed decisions will be the most crucial and time-consuming step in the chain of EVM procurement. The ECP may require the services of an expert consultant to make these decisions, and finding a suitable consultant will in itself be a time-consuming task as such consultants are very few. Fewer yet are those free from a potential conflict of interest.
Putting together a robust tender document conforming to international and PPRA (Public Procurement Regulatory Authority) requirements is the next step after which the tender may be announced. Prequalification of potential bidders, scrutiny of bids received, shortlisting of responsive bidders, negotiations with the shortlisted bidders and selection of the most suitable and competitive bidder will take considerable time after which comes the stage of giving the go-ahead to the EVM manufacturer.
Initially, a prototype will need to be produced and tested in the field. Depending on the results of the field tests, the manufacturer may be asked to mass-produce the machines. The production of the prototype, initial testing, mass production, transportation and testing again before deployment will require 15 to 18 months, according to one large European EVM manufacturer.
A cursory look at the timeline indicates that the procurement and use of EVMs in all constituencies in the 2023 poll will be extremely difficult if not outright impossible. Rushing the process will be dangerous and may compromise the quality and integrity of the machines.
The training of staff, provision of warehouses, security of machines etc are some other aspects which require careful attention.
The EVM Act is a valid law that all, including the ECP, need to faithfully implement. But the ECP has an overarching constitutional obligation under Article 218(3) to conduct free and fair elections. Even the new law reiterates the requirements of secrecy and security. The introduction of EVMs has to be undertaken within these constitutional parameters.
It is crucial that the prime minister’s EVM committee should sit with the ECP and understand the logistical challenges facing the introduction of EVMs.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2021