By Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
Pakistan needs a new parliamentary vote-counting system as the flawed one it has once again came into focus during the passage of the controversial Islamabad Capital Territory Waqf Properties Bill 2020 on Sept. 16. Although the government managed to get the bill passed by a thin majority of 10 votes, the opposition boycotted the rest of the proceedings maintaining that the counting was incorrect and even manipulated.
The sad part is that there is no way to reconfirm the votes cast for or against the bill because they are not recorded in the parliament. Most of decisions are taken by “voice vote.” The speaker gauges the loudness of the voice of the voters in favor or “ayes” or “nos” and proclaims based on his judgment that either “ayes have it” or “nos have it.”
The biggest flaw in this system is that neither the number of votes for and against a motion is known nor the identity of the two sets of voters. It is sometimes deceptive, especially when the opinion of the house is almost evenly divided as it was on Sept. 16. But despite these obvious flaws, the system continues to be used.
If a member objects to the result of a voice vote, the speaker tries it one more time after getting the lobbies cleared. If objections persist and the objecting member demands “division,” the speaker has the discretion to opt for it or not. Members in favor and against are made to leave the chamber through two separate exits. While members exit one by one, parliamentary staff record each member’s name. This is the only method in which one gets to know not only the number of votes for and against a motion but also who voted and how.
If the speaker decides that “division” is unnecessary, instead of leaving the chamber, parliament members in favor and against the motion are asked to separately rise in their seats and they will be counted. Based on the count, the result will be announced, but while the number of votes will be clear the identity of aye-no voters will not be recorded. This method was employed on Sept. 16.
National Assembly rules also provide for the option of employing an automatic vote recorder. Such a recorder along with its electronic display boards was procured several years ago. Each member’s seat is provided with a panel which contains a push-button for him or her to record their vote. Sadly, this system has not been operated for the last many decades apparently because there is no safeguard against unauthorized use of it. Tariq Malik, a former chairman of the National Database and Registration Authority, had reportedly offered the Assembly to design an electronic voting system based on biometric identification thus obviating the possibility of unauthorized use. It is not known why the offer was not accepted. Had such a system been employed, both names and the number of members voting in favor or against would have been displayed in real time.
The real issue is that voters in a democracy need to know how their elected representatives vote in parliament, but the current system hardly allows the collection and dissemination of this basic information. The result is that people are totally unaware about the voting trend and performance of their MPs. Without this critical information, it is very difficult to have an informed opinion about the elected representatives, which may guide one’s decision to vote or not to vote for them again.
Both houses of the parliament and provincial assemblies in Pakistan need to urgently reform the way the votes are cast, counted, and recorded. This information should be shared with the public. Voice vote does not fulfill even the most basic requirements of transparency. Voters need to know the pattern of voting of their representatives to see whether he or she indeed representing them.
(Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT. Twitter: @ABMPildat)