FAFEN’S Muddassir Rizvi says ECP should brief political parties on the EMS to inspire confidence in the new system.—AFP/file

Can ‘untested’ system wipe memories of RTS fiasco?

Rs280 million spent on developing fresh software that combines features of previous transmission and management systems.
Published January 27, 2024

• Rs280 million spent on developing fresh software that combines features of previous transmission and management systems
• ECP official insists staff well-trained in use of new software, protocols in place to ensure smooth compilation, transmission of results

WITH the general elections just weeks away, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Friday conducted the first countrywide mock exercise to test its new Election Manage­ment System (EMS), developed by a private company, which it plans to put to use in the upcoming electoral exercise.

However, given the commission has yet to live down the failure of the Result Transmi­ssion System (RTS) that was put in place amid much pomp and circumstance in the 2018 polls, there has been no word on how successful (or unsuccessful) the last minute experiment has proven to be this time around.

The RTS, an Android-based application developed by the National Database and Regis­tration Authority (Nadra) for the prompt disbursement of results from polling stations to returning officers, had famously crashed after the close of polling in 2018, bringing the entire process of result compilation and issuance to a standstill.

Many observers are wondering how the ECP, which is also still carrying the baggage of the failure of its Result Management System (RMS) in 2013, finds it feasible to use the new and untested system for general elections in the absence of a large-scale pilot project, or without running a trial during a by-election, which would help identify any kinks beforehand.

Any failure of the new system, which appears to be a combination of the RMS and RTS, could make the results of the upcoming polls controversial, experts have warned.

Sources say that a hefty amount of Rs280 million has been spent on developing the new system, but no attention has been paid to identifying and removing the flaws that made the RTS dysfunctional in 2018.

This is also a departure from the ECP’s stated positions in the past, when it opposed the hasty deployment of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) during the PTI’s days in power due to technical reasons.

Difference between RTS and RMS

The RMS was a desktop computer application, installed in the offices of returning officers (ROs).

According to the ECP’s website, data entry operators reporting to the RO could enter data such as the names of candidates, number of registered voters, name and number of polling stations, and the number of votes cast for each candidate, to quickly generate draft forms that used to take hours to fill by hand in the past.

The RMS, then, was an offline software installed in a computer at the RO office, manned by a trained data entry operator.

The RO was supposed to receive results from presiding officers on Form 45s. After receiving results from all polling stations, the RMS was instructed to generate Form 47, which was a consolidated result of that constituency. This form was subsequently transmitted to the ECP, which uploaded it onto its official website.

On the other hand, the RTS was an entirely different system, which transmitted Form 45s from polling stations to RO offices and the ECP Secretariat using a smartphone.

 AN ECP official said that the newly-developed system had been tested in multiple mock exercises and claimed that it was found to be credible and secure.—AFP/file
AN ECP official said that the newly-developed system had been tested in multiple mock exercises and claimed that it was found to be credible and secure.—AFP/file

In defence of EMS

A senior ECP official told Dawn that the newly-developed system had been tested in multiple mock exercises at the provincial, divisional and district levels, and claimed that it was found to be credible and secure.

He said the EMS ecosystem would operate over a private secure network, not connected to the internet. “It runs efficiently over private network to compile results online, but in case of absence of connectivity, the EMS can also automatically operate in offline mode,” the official said.

The system, he said, was able to generate Form 47s, with or without internet connectivity.

There is another backup system (compiling results in Microsoft Excel) which is also in place to ensure continuity of activity for ROs during the result compilation stage on polling night, he said.

The official claimed that the the EMS was altogether different from the infamous RTS and, technically speaking, there was no correlation between these two systems.

“The area of operation of both systems is very different,” he said, adding that no RTS will be used in the upcoming general elections.

Seasoned election observer and Free and Fair Election Network CEO Muddassir Rizvi told Dawn that while the optimal use of information technology was essential to improving the quality and efficiency of the electoral process, it would augur well if the Commission organises briefings for political parties on the EMS, as it is being used as an integral part of the result management process.

“This is essential to inspire greater confidence in the system,” he remarked.

What went wrong in 2018

The ECP official pointed out that in 2018 elections, two separate systems were being used independently, i.e. the Result Management System (RMS) developed by the ECP’s IT Wing to assist ROs in the swift compilation and tabulation of election results, and the RTS developed by Nadra, which was used by Presiding Officers for electronic transmission of Form 45s via the internet.

“The RMS worked well and compiled the results successfully as per Section 13 (1) of the Elections Act, 2017. RMS was operational and produced results in shape of automatically generated Forms 47, 48 and 49. But the RTS failed to yield the desired output,” he remarked.

However, since both systems worked independently of each other, the faults of the RTS did not affect the working of the RMS, he said.

This time around, he said the EMS would do the job that was previously managed by the RMS, and is an upgraded version of the system used previously.

Highlighting some of its features, the official said the EMS operated over a secure private data network and was not dependent on internet connectivity, which would be a plus in case of any eventuality on polling night.

In 2018, only one RMS workstation was provided to each RO for the compilation of results. “This time around, three to four laptops dedicated for the EMS — manned by four trained data entry operators — are being provided to each RO for efficient and error-free tabulation and compilation of results.

Redundancies and fail-safes

In September last year, the ECP engaged the services of as many as 3,600 data entry operators, attaching them with ROs to assist the latter in the compilation of results.

Moreover, a comprehensive training programme was also arranged to enhance the capacity of these personnel.

The ECP official disclosed that another component of the EMS was its mobile version, which would be used by presiding officers on their smartphones, enabling them to send electronic copies of Form 45s to their respective ROs over secure private networks, even if they did not have access to mobile data or WiFi.

The official said that Nadra’s highly secure data centre was being utilised to host EMS servers, while technical control lay with the ECP’s technical team.

“The computerised electoral roll system (CERS) is also hosted in Nadra’s secure data centre, but the ECP has direct and smart control over the data,” he said, adding that this setup had been successfully operational for more than a decade now.

The commission has also upgraded its own servers in accordance with global standards, he said.

According to the official, arrangements have been made in the offices of all 859 returning officers to display polling-station-wise accumulative results on a multimedia projector.

This setup, he claimed, was successfully used in all previous by-elections wherein media personnel, contesting candidates, polling agents, civil society organizations and other stakeholders were also able to observe the results as they came in.

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2024

To find your constituency and the location of your polling booth, SMS your NIC number (without spaces) to 8300. Once you know your constituency, you can find out about the contesting candidates by visiting the ECP website here and checking the province-wise break-up of Form 33s.