Pakistan’s elections in numbers — low turnout, gender inequality and voting mishaps

Pakistan's 12th general elections recorded a low turnout with only 47.8pc of total eligible voters exercising their right to choose their representatives.
Published February 19, 2024

While political parties fight over who gets to form the government at the centre and each of the provinces, there are cries from various quarters of their mandate having been stolen. But what does that mean? How many Pakistanis actually exercised their right to adult franchise on Feb 8? And where the voter turnout was less than ideal, does the winning candidate actually represent the will of the people?

In the words of political analyst Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, voter turnout is as vital a sign of the political health of a democracy as is blood pressure in a human body.

Broadly speaking, a total of 60.8 million voters exercised their right to vote in Pakistan’s 12th general elections, according to an analysis conducted by through the published Form 47s of the 264 constituencies, whose results have been announced, on the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) website. This number was almost 6 million more compared to when 54.8 million Pakistanis cast their votes in 2018.

Besides voter turnout, the data contained in the Form 47s also shed light on at least two other key patterns — the number of rejected votes and the disparity between female and male voters in each constitutency — which we analysed and whose findings are presented below.

They did show up to vote

Despite months of political instability, violence and allegations of pre-decided winners, millions of Pakistanis did come out to cast their vote on Feb 8. However, their numbers were only 47.8 per cent of the total eligible voters — which means that over half of the eligible voters in the country chose not to exercise their right to franchise at all.

In a recent article for this publication, former senator Javed Jabbar wrote that “the minimal turnout to validate an election should be at least 75pc, which is equivalent to the margin required to make a constitutional amendment in most democracies.”

In Pakistan, the democratic process mandates the affirmation of two-thirds majority of all elected representatives in the assembly to bring about an amendment in the Constitution. However, the voter turnout, determining the individuals who will represent the public in the legislative process, has consistently remained below 60pc, and it has never reached the threshold of 75pc since Independence.

Keeping up with tradition of low turnout, in the 2024 elections all provinces except Punjab — with 51pc — reported a voter turnout of less then 50pc. The turnout in Balochistan was the lowest at 41pc; close in the race were Sindh with 43.6pc and KP with 44pc.

Across the 264 constituencies, NA-214 Tharparkar I witnessed the highest voter turnout at 70.9pc, whereas the lowest was recorded in South Waziristan at a mere 16pc. While not reaching the absolute lowest, the unexpectedly low turnout in NA-236 Karachi East II (24.93pc) and NA-241 Karachi South (23pc) caught everyone off guard.

One of the reasons behind the low turnout was the fear of violence at polling stations. Talha Saeed, a voter in constituency NA-236 said that he was unable to cast his vote as the polling station was shut down at 1pm due to a firing incident.

The incident took place despite the fact the majority of polling stations in Karachi had been declared ‘sensitive’ by the ECP. Large police and Rangers contingents were also deployed to ensure a smooth electoral process.

It also wasn’t that any expenditure was spared to facilitate the electoral process, with the ECP having been allocated a budget of Rs42 billion — which when calculated against the number of registered voters — means that Rs329.51 were devoted to facilitate each voter.

Despite the substantial investment of taxpayer funds and a year-long preparation period, the ECP fell short in ensuring accessibility for all voters. The author personally observed a deficiency at their polling station in NA-238, where facilities to assist the elderly and disabled citizens in casting their votes were notably absent.

The ECP had set up a helpline, 8300, allowing voters to obtain information about their provincial and national constituencies, polling stations, and serial numbers by entering their national identity number. Unfortunately, on election day, cellular services were suspended citing security concerns. Those who were unable to send messages the day before and were unaware of their polling details were simply at a loss and many couldn’t cast their vote for this very reason.

According to the ECP’s own data, a significant proportion of the no-shows were eligible female voters.

How many women showed up?

Compared to the total 46.89pc female voter turnout in 2018, the share of female voters share decreased to 41.3pc this year. At the same time, men’s turnout increased from 56.01pc to 58.7pc. This also furthered the gap between the genders to 17.4 percentage points, translating into 10.22 million fewer women votes polled than men’s.

In the 98 by-elections held since the 2018 general elections, this pattern of lower female voter turnout has persisted where the share of polled women votes has been around 40pc of the total polled votes, translating to around 2m fewer women votes polled.

One of the measures taken by the state to encourage women voter turnout was through Section 9 of the Elections Act, 2017, which states that if the turnout of women voters is less than 10pc of the total votes polled in a constituency, the ECP may presume that women voters have been restrained from casting their votes and may declare polling at one or more polling stations or election in the whole constituency void.

In Shangla, along with North Waziristan, the ECP had declared the 2018 polls void over the low turnout of female voters. This time, however, none of the national or provincial assemblies’ constituencies recorded a female turnout that was less than 10pc of the total polled votes.

The lowest vote share of women among total polled votes was 18.8pc recorded in NA-13 Battagram. Meanwhile, the highest women vote share stood at 49.5 pc in NA-1 Chitral Upper/ Chitral Lower.

This particular provision has, however, adopted a flawed definition of female voter turnout.

Essentially, it considers the proportion of women’s votes cast out of the total votes cast, often resulting in an inflated representation of female turnout. It’s imperative to revise this provision by defining women’s voter turnout as the percentage of women’s votes cast out of the total registered women’s votes.

The lesser share of women’s registered votes compared to men can form the basis for the low participation of women in the electoral process. Despite that, in a handful of constituencies, the proportion of women who showed up to vote was higher than that of men.

In NA-1 Chitral, 57.2pc of eligible women cast their votes compared to 49.8pc men. Similarly, in NA-63 Gujrat-II, the percentage of women voters was 51.8, while men stood at 50.2.

In Lahore’s NA-128, the proportion of men and women who cast their votes out of their respective registered numbers was almost the same (56.48pc for men and 56.02pc for women). Likewise, in NA-139 Pakpattan-I, 52.13pc men showed up compared to a close 52.10pc women. In NA-178 Muzaffargarh-IV, this ratio was also similar for both (53.7 for men and 53.03 for women).

Thari women made a record again with their remarkable turnout of 72.8pc and 67.7pc in NA-214 Tharparkar-I and NA-215 Tharparkar-II, respectively. In the last elections, the ratio of women who came out to vote in Thar was also the highest anywhere in Pakistan.

Two other constituencies that had more than 60pc of its registered women showing up were NA-92 Bhakkar II (63pc) and NA-165 Bahawalpur-II (62.6pc).

Even though the numbers mentioned above show signs of progress, the majority of the data illustrates that there is a long way to go. In every single constituency, more men have cast their votes than women. Moreover, in at least 12 constituencies, the female turnout was 20pc or less. In contrast, no constituency had less than 20pc turnout for men.

In NA-42 South Waziristan, the female turnout was the lowest at 9.21pc. Other constituencies with 20 or less percentage of women casting votes were NA-27 Khyber, NA-13 Battagram, NA-4 Swat-III, NA-11 Shangla, NA-36 Hangu/Orakzai, NA-26 Mohmand, NA-3 Swat-II, NA-263 Quetta-II, and NA-30 Peshawar-III.

Two surprises were from Karachi’s NA-236 (district east) and NA-241 Karachi (district south) which had poor female voter turnouts of 15.7pc and 20.3pc respectively.

There are 26 constituencies where the female turnout percentage was between 21 and 30. Karachi again makes an appearance four times between this range which raises many questions about the female political activity in the city.

The ECP has not provided gender-disaggregated polled votes as required under the Election Rules, 2017 in the following constituencies: NA-19 Swabi, NA-46 Islamabad-I, NA-50 Attock II, NA-64 Gujrat, NA-87 Khushab, NA-154 Lodhran I, NA-266 Qila Abdullah/Chaman. These constituencies are therefore not part of this analysis.

The recurring saga of discarded ballots

The integrity of any democratic process hinges on the fundamental principle of ensuring that every vote counts. Yet, there is a disconcerting trend undermining this principle within Pakistan’s electoral history. Recent revelations from the 2024 elections show that not much has changed. Approximately 2 million ballot papers were excluded from the count across all 264 National Assembly (NA) seats contested.

This staggering figure exposes a deeply concerning reality: the proportion of votes rejected out of the total votes cast has been steadily rising over the past two decades, as confirmed by the Gallup Pakistan Data Analytics Team. This not only challenges the very essence of democratic representation but also sparks serious doubts about the efficacy of Pakistan’s electoral mechanisms and the broader implications for its democratic future.

Ballot rejection surpasses victory margins

In at least 24 National Assembly constituencies, the number of rejected ballots exceeded the margin of victory. As reported earlier by Dawn, 22 of these districts were located in Punjab, with one each in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh provinces.

The NA-59 constituency, Talagang/Chakwal in Punjab registered the highest number of rejected votes, where PML-N’s Sardar Ghulam Abbas clinched victory with 141,680 votes against PTI-backed Muhammad Ruman Ahmad’s 129,716 votes. The victory margin stood at 11,964 votes, while the count of rejected ballots reached 24,547. Following closely was NA-213 Umerkot, with 17,571 votes rejected. A significant number of districts — 137 to be specific — reported a considerable count of rejected votes ranging from 5,000 to 10,000.

As far as the overall weightage is concerned, NA-255 Sohbatpur/ Jaffarabad with 8.1pc saw the highest percentage of rejected votes. Similarly, a significant proportion of votes, 7.1pc, in NA-196 Qambar-Shahadatkot were discarded during the counting process.

Made with Flourish

The graph illustrates the distribution of discarded votes across 264 constituencies, revealing that the majority of these votes fall within the range of 1pc and 4pc.

Notably, for a subset of these constituencies, the range expands from 5pc to 9pc. This discrepancy prompts concerns regarding the factors contributing to the rising levels of discarded votes within these specific divisions. What exactly happened there?

Intriguing insights

Certain constituencies — NA-255 Sohbatpur/ Jafferabad, NA-196 Qambar-S, NA-191 Jacobabad Kashmore, NA-59 Talagang, NA-151 Multan IV, NA-198 Ghotki, NA-190 Jacobabad, NA-213 Umerkot — have evidently witnessed high rates of discarded votes.

In light of the concerning figures, particularly exemplified in the case of these 15 constituencies, it becomes a moral and democratic imperative to address the root causes behind the escalating count of rejected votes. The staggering magnitude of invalidated ballots demands urgent scrutiny and action.

Allah Bux Arisrar, a journalist from Umerkot, told that he asked a presiding officer about the reasons for the increasing number of rejected votes.

One factor identified was the confusion among voters with weak vision, who mistakenly interpreted symbols on the ballot. For instance, they often confused the arrow with the brush, the white peacock with the green peacock, and the wolf with the lion. When similar-looking symbols representing distinct parties are positioned next to each other, it is hard to not conclude that this placement was strategic to impair voters’ ability to accurately identify and mark their preferred choice.

“Influential waderas colluded with election staff to rig the voting process by placing double stamps on ballots, thereby rendering them invalid,” Arisrar added. “During the process of taking thumb impressions, ink would often remain on voters’ thumbs, and there was no mechanism in place to effectively clean it. Consequently, when individuals entered the voting booth, the ink on their thumbs would inadvertently transfer onto the ballot paper, contributing to the increased number of discarded votes.”

Abdul Wahid Shahwani, a reporter from Khuzdar, Balochistan, said that the high rate of discarded votes in Balochistan stems from a pervasive lack of voter education and awareness throughout the province.

“Illiteracy is prevalent among minority groups, farmers, and agricultural workers, leading to confusion regarding the voting process. Many individuals were unsure whether to use a stamp or their thumb to cast their vote, resulting in a significant number opting to use their thumbs. Given that there is minimal focus on education in the region, incidents like these shouldn’t come as a surprise; if anything, they should be expected.”

Shahwani also revealed that there was a lack of understanding regarding the correct method of folding the ballot papers. In some polling stations, women took the stamps with them, leaving others to use their thumbs dipped in stamp ink to cast their votes.

“Opposition candidates in the constituencies, engaged in nefarious tactics to ensure double voting, in an attempt to defeat the winning candidates,” said Shams Bhutto, reporting from Ghotki for “The influence of powerful figures like sardars and waderas in the region was the driving force behind this malpractice that resulted in the rejection of votes.”

Failure to rectify such discrepancies jeopardises the very essence of the democratic process, causing the complete erosion of public trust in the electoral system that is, needless to say, already hanging by a thread.

It is incumbent upon authorities to undertake thorough investigations to ensure that every vote counts and that the voice of the electorate is truly heard and respected. For without this commitment, we risk sacrificing the very soul of our democracy on the altar of indifference.

In conclusion, Pakistan’s 12th general elections recorded a low turnout with only 47.90pc of total eligible voters exercising their right to choose their representatives. This underscores the ongoing challenge of enhancing broader civic participation. As the nation reflects on this democratic milestone, addressing barriers to voting becomes essential for fostering a more inclusive electoral process in the future.


Total registered vote count excluded NA-8 and NA-88

Total balloted vote count excludes data of NA-8, NA-88 and NA-265

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