ISLAMABAD: The Election Commission of Pakistan and the government appeared to be poles apart in the Supreme Court on Tuesday on the issue of extending the facility of electronic voting to Pakistanis living abroad.
While the court wishes to see the facility extended to overseas Pakistanis to enable them to cast their votes in the coming elections, the ECP insists that the electronic voting is not a feasible option at the moment.
Although the Ministry of Information Technology says the task is achievable with the help of sophisticated software, it agrees that it is not feasible in the coming elections.
During the hearing of a case relating to the grant of voting rights to Pakistanis living abroad, Director General of Elections Sher Afgan said a meeting held in the ECP on Monday had concluded that in the absence of a proper legislation the facility could not be extended at the moment. But he added that a team had been set up under him to develop a mechanism and procedures.
The meeting praised the apex court for providing guidelines and support and said the commission could not think of disobeying the court.
Mr Afgan said sensitive information, including complete particulars of womenfolk, was available with the ECP.
“Intelligence agencies and the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) fear that with just one click of a button the entire data can be stolen or hacked,” he said, adding that 3.5 million of the 4.5m overseas Pakistanis were registered voters and also held National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP). About 3.1 million of them are registered with Nadra with their permanent and temporary home addresses in Pakistan and 5,694 with addresses outside the country.
Mr Afgan said that after July 31 last year, Nicop had been issued to another 34,239 expatriates and they were registered voters in Pakistani.
The court said it was not asking the ECP to open polling booths in all embassies and consulates. The commission should select a few embassies in major countries and ask people to come there and cast their votes on the election day and these should then be posted back to Pakistan electronically.
But Mr Afgan said picking and choosing embassies would itself make the entire exercise questionable and even if a mechanism was developed problems could emerge without prior testing. The main stakeholders in matter were political parties.
“No, the main stakeholders are the voters,” the chief justice corrected him.
At present, Mr Afgan said, there was no law to extend this right to outside Pakistan. Citing Article 222 (c) of the Constitution, he said that for the registration of a voter it was necessary that the person must live in a constituency. Besides, Section 7 of the Electoral Rolls Act 1974 bars registration of a voter outside his constituency. Attorney General Irfan Qadir informed the court that he had presided over a meeting on Monday in which Member Information Technology Mohammad Amir Malik said the task could be achieved by registering voice signatures of voters and then issuing passwords to them through post. Dedicated software could be developed to protect data from being hacked.
“Since software development is a complex and time consuming process as several barriers needed to be crossed, it may take at least 12 months to be ready,” the attorney general said. He said developed countries like Germany were facing issues with e-voting, adding that it was a total failure in Ireland while in India it was still a dream. But he admitted that elections would have to be switched to e-voting in future.
Once the ways and means are developed, Mr Qadir said, the competent authority could be requested to enact a legislation.
In its order the court said the ECP had to decide how to develop a practical and workable mechanism. It gave the commission a week to do the job.
Referring to the court’s June 8, 2012 verdict in the Workers Party case, Munir Paracha, representing the ECP, said that except for compulsory voting, electronic voting and an amendment to the ‘First Past the Post’ system of election in which a winning candidate, though declared successful, failed to receive an absolute majority, the rest of the directives in the judgment would be implemented.