KARACHI, Aug 2: If the latest electoral rolls are used in their current form, there are parts of the country where fewer Pakistanis will be able to vote in the upcoming polls than in 2007.

The total number of voters nationally, according to the latest list released by the Election Commission on July 31, stands at 84.4 million, compared to 81.2 million in 2007. This is a suspiciously low growth rate given the rapidly expanding Pakistani population — an average of less than one per cent a year.

But at least it represents growth. In Sindh and Balochistan, though, the numbers have declined dramatically, by 7 per cent and 22 per cent, respectively.

In fact, an analysis of the district-level breakdown of the latest rolls reveals that 16 of Sindh’s 23 districts (counting Karachi as one district, as was done in 2007) saw a decline in the number of voters, as did 25 of Balochistan’s 30 districts.

Behind these differences lie the different methodologies that were used to register voters now versus five years ago. This time voter registration was based on the CNIC.

This is an important step forward for Pakistan in terms of more transparent voting, since the CNIC is a computerised and unique identifier. That makes it more difficult to stuff ballots with fake votes, as was reportedly done during the last polls, when people could register themselves based on a range of identity documents of which there was no electronic record.

“The 2007 figure is a very poor basis for comparison because that registration exercise was deeply flawed,” says Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency. “It allowed bogus voters, dead voters and multiple registrations for one person.”

The trouble with the new system, though, is that it leaves out those citizens who don’t have easy access to Nadra offices, have recently become eligible to vote by turning 18 but don’t yet have a CNIC, or for whatever other reason have not yet registered themselves in the database.

What remains less clear are the exact reasons why this new, computerised system has captured fewer voters in certain places. Is it because bogus voters have been removed by checking against the database, because multiple entries have been deleted or because residents didn’t have access to Nadra? Is it partly driven by administrative reasons, because some district boundaries have been redrawn over time?

In Dadu, for example, a district with over 830,000 voters in 2007, the number has fallen by a whopping 27 per cent. In Hyderabad district, with over 1.1 million voters five years ago, it has fallen by 19 per cent. Quetta district has lost over 100,000 of the over 650,000 voters it previously had.

These are districts with significant populations, not remote areas. Fata, meanwhile, has over 20 per cent more voters today than it did in 2007. Partly this might be because IDPs entering refugee camps are made to register, or because residents register for security reasons. Whatever the case, according to Mr Mehboob these large swings in numbers are the most alarming feature of the new electoral rolls.

But pinpointing the exact reasons for the difference would require analysis that has not yet been done, says ECP Secretary Ishtiaq Ahmed Khan when asked why the numbers have fallen in Sindh and Balochistan. “What I can say for certain is that we removed all the voters Nadra could not verify and included all those with genuine CNICs as of May 31, 2012,” he says.

That would suggest the main problem with the new numbers is that they don’t capture Pakistanis without CNICs. Even leaving aside the issue of bogus votes, what is clear, using existing population estimates, is that millions of Pakistanis are being disenfranchised.

“Almost 85 million Pakistanis have CNICs. Four years ago we could not have imagined this, and Nadra has done great work,” says Mudassir Rizvi, chief executive officer of the Free and Fair Election Network. “But according to the Economic Survey released in May this year, there are about 104 million Pakistanis over 18 years of age, leaving 20 million people uncounted on the voter lists.

“These are people living on the margins who are not otherwise incentivised to get CNICs.

What is needed is for the ECP and Nadra to acknowledge that millions of people are still unregistered to vote. Then the media and civil society can step in.”

The main problem at the moment, Mr Mehboob adds, is the difficulty of accessing the voter lists.

“They are only available at the district-level ECP offices. Instead, they should be available to anyone for a small fee so that media and especially political parties can analyse them and urge citizens to get themselves registered.”

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