EVMs—yet another controversy

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By Senator Rehman Malik

Elections in Pakistan always remain controversial and despite a lot of complaints and the establishment of investigative teams and commissions, the nation has not been able to know the results of investigations. Our election commission remained weak in its performance because of improper control on the election process. The attempt on the establishment of RTS and RMS prototypes was a kind of electric reporting that eventually resulted in failure. RTS functioned fine initially but its sudden shutdown still remains a mystery. A committee under my supervision made the initial inquiry and it was later referred to the Senate for a larger commission investigation composed of members from the NA and Senate and also to a high-powered judicial commission. The outcome of the investigation is pending till date. Now a new e-machine has been introduced, which is a kind of RTS being converted to an e-machine. The RTS was designed by NADRA which was cost effective as well, but its purpose was frustrated for unknown reasons. Let us examine in detail the technical, administrative and security aspects of this newly introduced e-machine, which is a remarkable invention as per the claims of the government.

We do not have a pulse system as yet, but most electronic communication is now dependent on private internet service, which is insecure. It is an insecure medium of transferring any kind of data which is open to hackers. It looks like the present government is very keen on this and all set to conduct this highly expensive experiment of using electronic voting machines in Pakistan for the next general elections. I am not against the use of modern technology to make our election processes easy, transparent and cost effective and free of ringing, but we need to look into its multiple aspects in light of past experience and failure of the RTS and RMS. I would like to shed some light on the past when this idea was first coined by our government in 2009. The idea of an electronic voting machine for Pakistan was conceived by me for the first time in my capacity as Interior Minister and I got a detailed study done on voting through the electronic machine.

It looked like a fascinating and quick mode of polling but it did not turn out to be perfect. I even directed the then Chairman NADRA in 2009 to look into it further and also attended two meetings with the then election commission on this subject as well. A major part of the team was not in favour of this, I, however, directed them to keep working and create a cost effective feasibility report and they should be rigging-free electronic vote processes. The NADRA team, along with the assistance of ECP, continued to work on it and the nation witnessed the launch of the RTS software instead of a voting machine. This proposed machine is basically a modified form of RTS which was introduced to cover the election results and transfer of collection of voting data to ECP via NADRA. The app installed in the mobile of respective presiding officers was responsible to transfer compiled voting of every candidate to the ECP. It performed well in communicating the initial results until the dealing staff was ordered to put a stop to the use of RTS. It remained a mystery as to who ordered to shut the RTS however, the mystery of the ordering authority could not be resolved though a voice recording was received through an unknown source, played by me in the parliament in my capacity as the Chairman of Parliament Committee comprised of 23 members that looked into the allegations of rigging. RMS being faulty is another story and I firmly believe that India, through its EC company (The Electronic Council of Commerce Consultants) had hacked websites. RMS was launched by ECP in collaboration with UNDP and the quality/functionality of RMS was certified by Kualitatem Inc., duly registered in the USA, having its office in Lahore.

Who will guarantee that India will not try to hack again and the results of our elections cannot be altered, just like the alleged Russian hacking of the US elections; the matter is still being investigated by Mr Robert Mueller. There are 95,000 voter identification units, hence, going by the number of polling stations, polling booths and voter identification units, Pakistan will need a total of 900,000-1,000,000 of these five different EVM modules to conduct polls for all provincial and national assembly seats in a single day. The total cost for 900,000 to one million modules will eventually be Rs45 billion to Rs70 billion, since the printer is the most expensive module. Any good printer is going to cost $700-1,000 each. The total for the printers will go up to about Rs15bn in local currency. On the other hand, Voter Identification Modules will cost around Rs10bn. Likewise, a reasonable quality ballot unit will cost $200 each, making it a blow of Rs12 billion in local currency. RTS modules will cost a further blow of Rs2-3bn. The total bill for this amounts to Rs55bn. A compromise on price would result in a compromise on quality, and we cannot afford to encounter another failure in our electoral system. Also, the cost is also not the only headache since, in order to get one million modules by the time the 2023 election swings around, Pakistan will need to produce 3,000 modules a day. Electronic voting was introduced in many developed countries as well yet it is declared an infamous idea for election over the series of serious doubts about the security, accuracy, reliability and verifiability of electronic elections. It will become a hacking and rigging tool. I feel improvement in this system must continue and perhaps our experts need to bring an efficient system ensuring the rigging-free elections. Major countries of the world have discarded it for not being efficient and workable enough especially for use in villages. It looks to me that even if we spend multibillion rupees, we will still not have the right system.

The views expressed are solely mine and do not necessarily represent the views of my party.

(The writer is former Interior Minister of Pakistan, Chairman Senate Standing Committee on Interior and Chairman of Think Tank “Global Eye”. He is the author of four books and his fifth book is about to get published. He can be reached at: rmalik1212@gmail.com, Twitter @Senrehmanmalik)