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Missing millions?

August 02, 2012


THE updated electoral rolls are out, and several months before elections are due. With that effort, and by linking voter registration to the CNIC, the Election Commission and Nadra have contributed to more transparent and fairer elections. But the headline number of 84.4 million voters, and its provincial breakdown, needs to be explained. Most strikingly, the numbers of registered voters have actually dropped in Sindh and Balochistan compared to the 2007 rolls. One explanation might be that bogus voters on the 2007 lists have now been removed through verification against Nadra data. But that still leaves the problem of under-representation. Various estimates of Pakistan’s population, including the 1998 census and the 2011 house count, indicate that millions of citizens of voting age remain missing from the new electoral rolls. That, in turn, is probably a product of the marginalisation of communities, especially those located in remote areas, who simply don’t have CNICs.

But all this will remain conjecture until the ECP explains what is causing the fall in registered voters in Sindh and Balochistan in particular, and why the number of voters registered nationally is significantly below the country’s likely population, by up to 20 million people according to one independent estimate. Without some clarification the new list could easily become controversial and be used to question election results when those eventually come through. Next, Nadra and the ECP need to figure out how to register many more Pakistanis before the elections, which will require quickly reaching out into under-registered, rural and remote communities. The ECP plan to display the rolls so that citizens can correct them is just a first step. Given how expensive and inconvenient it can be for many to travel to district-level offices, the lists need to be available far more widely, perhaps at the union council level, ideally accompanied by Nadra representatives who can at least begin the registration process for those who still don’t have CNICs.

The concept of linking voter registration to a computerised and unique identity is an important one, and a clear step forward for election reform in Pakistan. Voter fraud should now be significantly more difficult to pull off. And there is still time for citizens to make sure they are registered, and at the right address. But given the current system, those will be citizens with access. As a first step, the ECP needs to explain the new numbers. And then it needs to make sure communities that have been left out are able to get themselves on the list.