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Enigma of voters’ list

Published Aug 15, 2012 12:20am

PRIME Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has said that fair and free elections offer the only way out of the present constitutional crisis. He is right, but only if the elections are truly fair and free.

Given the state of the recently released electoral rolls it is difficult to believe that the exercise will be flawless. No one doubts the integrity of Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Fakhruddin Ebrahim, who has an impeccable reputation. But how much can he do? The mantle of the CEC has fallen on his shoulders so late in the day. I.A. Rehman of the HRCP had a point when he reminded us that authentic electoral rolls are basic to adult franchise. The numbers game is baffling and political parties are disinterested.

A look at the numbers is quite instructive. After five revision-free years, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has told us that there are 84.4 million registered voters in the country. It must be remembered that just the sum total — produced by a lot of additions and subtractions by Nadra on the basis of CNICs — does not ensure that the lists are perfect. Even addresses have to be correct. Within 10 days of the release of the rolls 560,000 people in Sindh alone had sought corrections in their entries. That is just the beginning.

This was inevitable. We are operating in a grey area. With the last census having been held in 1998 and the one thereafter being abandoned in 2011 after the house count became controversial, one cannot even quote our population size with a credible degree of accuracy. So how can one be sure about the number of missing voters? How are they to be traced now?

Annual revisions of the electoral rolls have never taken place as stipulated by the law, even though the ECP has been in existence throughout. Nadra’s database provides a baseline, but some kind of physical checks are essential. We know how faulty our birth and death registration system is. One senator has raised the issue of 15 million dead voters. The figure might be a guesstimate, but the point she makes is correct. A friend confirmed that his checks showed four of his deceased relatives are registered as voters.

That is not the only flaw. Technical glitches abound. As a test case I text-messaged four CNIC numbers to the ECP’s voter verification service. Two of them gave the locality where the holder of the card was registered as a voter quite far removed from what was recorded on the CNIC. An ECP official himself admitted that 80,000 Karachi voters were transferred to Balochistan due to some technical error. How many such errors will be discovered in time to be corrected?

When the figures run into millions the whole election exercise assumes a daunting dimension. But it has to be addressed.

This poses a dilemma for the ECP. The best approach would have been if the process of enrolling voters as originally stipulated in the Electoral Rolls Act of 1974 and the rules framed under it had been strictly followed. Rule 17 lays down that every year the electoral rolls are to be revised and corrected. The procedure prescribed was as elaborate as that of preparing fresh rolls. This entailed total coverage of all residential units in the country by the enumeration staff for distribution and collection of application forms for enrolment and checks by supervisory staff.

In 1990, it was decided to simplify the revision procedure as it was found to be cumbersome and expensive. The existing electoral rolls were published as draft rolls and amendments and objections were invited. This would have worked to an extent if checks on the ground had been carried out.

Democracy was never taken seriously and so the need for authentic electoral lists was never felt. The whole issue was treated cavalierly. Thus in 2000 Nadra was inducted into the voter registration process, but being new to the game its lists were found to be ‘cumbersome’. Most importantly, they were not compiled after a door-to-door enumeration but prepared on the basis of the 1998 census forms. There were 71.8 million voters who were registered, and their details were recorded electronically and the 2002 elections were held on the basis of these details.

Then came 2005, when it was decided to computerise the lists after a door-to-door survey, which was not very efficiently done in 2006. The task of feeding the data into a computerised system was not very transparent. Entrusted to a US-based organisation with the help of USAID for $9.5m, the process was not open to scrutiny and only the American ambassador was allowed to see it. Nadra was kept out of this exercise, although by then it had a growing database. As a result only 52.1 million voters were registered in 2007, which showed a huge shortfall. The Supreme Court intervened and the ECP included the missing names from the 2002 list and the voters’ strength shot up to 81 million.

Unfortunately, no attempt was made to revise this list as should have been done under the law. Five years is a long enough period to have door-to-door enumeration and computerise the data. What now? It is a positive sign that the ECP has announced that corrections and entries will be entertained till the polling schedule is announced. But for that we need massive mobilisation of the voters and a staff to check their entries.

Only political parties can persuade voters to take an interest in the lists. Will they? They do not even seem to understand the implications of flawed lists for democracy.