PILDAT Online Course: Demystifying Electoral Reforms in Pakistan


The two-day PILDAT online course on Demystifying Electoral Reforms in Pakistan took place from June 29-30, 2021.

The course brought together national and international Resource Persons to discuss key issues of electoral reforms that are currently being debated in Pakistan. Resource Persons at the Course included Mr. S. Y. Quraishi, Former Chief Election Commissioner of India, Dr. Muhammad Manshad Satti, Former Chairman Internet Voting Task Force (IVTF) created by the ECP at the direction of Supreme Court of Pakistan (2018); CEO, IT Butler E-Services FZ LLC, Mr. Atif Majeed, Former Team Member of first EVM prototype developed in Pakistan from COMSATS Institute of Information & Technology (2011); Programme Manager, GP Partners Australia, and Mr. Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, President PILDAT. The course was moderated by Ms. Aasiya Riaz, Joint Director PILDAT.

Opening the first day of the course on June 29 with the Context of Electoral Reforms in Pakistan, Mr. Ahmed Bilal Mehboob discussed the major electoral reforms that have taken place in Pakistan in the past two decades. Mr. Mehboob said that electoral reforms are high on public demand with 85% people supporting reforms. However, political consensus is a key requirement to institute electoral reforms. He also shared that despite comprehensive constitutional and legal powers and protection given to the electoral system in Pakistan, public credibility of election remains weak which shows weakness in implementation of existing electoral reforms. While Pakistan enjoys one of the most comprehensive constitutional and legal frameworks in ensuring independence of the election commission and its vast powers, the trust deficit stems from lack of effective implementation of the available powers.

Mr. Mehboob said that electoral reforms have been an ongoing process in Pakistan and in the past few decades, significant and critical reforms have been put in place by various regimes. He listed key reforms put in place in the tenures of previous governments. In the Musharraf’s era these included, among others, reduction in voting age to 18, increasing of seats in Assemblies, increasing seats for women, modifying definition of foreign funding for Parties and making it mandatory for legislators to submit annual statements of Assets & Liabilities. In the PPP tenure from 2008 to 2013, the ECP was made as full time and permanent body; a bi-partisan process was adopted for appointment of CEC & Members and of caretaker governments, CNIC was made mandatory for vote registration & casting, computerized electoral rolls were made for the first time, full-time and dedicated Election Tribunals were appointed and an ordinance was issued on voting by Overseas Pakistanis. Under the PML-N tenure from 2013-2018, electoral reforms instituted included the 22nd Amendment which removed the earlier requirement of CEC & Commissioners to be from judiciary, all election laws were consolidated into the Elections Act, 2017 which included pilot testing of electronic voting & Biometric Verification, voting for Overseas Pakistanis. He said that 2 key but little known amendments made were also made in the Elections Act, 2017 which include a loophole through which spending by other than the candidate has been made exempt from legal ceiling of election spending, (Sec 132 (5) in contrast to defunct ROPA Sec 49 (1) and corporate funding to Political Parties has been allowed through Sec 204 (3) of Elections Act, 2017 which was earlier prohibited under Sec 6 (3) of defunct Political Parties Order,2002.

Mr. Mehboob shared said that electoral reforms that are being debated these days include the Elections (Amendment) bill, 2021 passed by the National Assembly and now before the Senate. Mr. Mehboob said that key amongst those are biometric verification of voters, use of electronic voting machines and voting by Overseas Pakistanis. The question of secret or open ballot for Senate election, reserved seats for Overseas Pakistanis in Parliament, allowing dual nationals to contest election, etc. are also some of the key electoral reforms.

Dr. Muhammad Manshad Satti, presented findings of the Internet Voting Task Force (IVTF) created by the ECP at the direction of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and discussed challenges, faced in piloting I-voting in bye elections in 2018. He said that pre-requisites of I-Voting include trust in internet voting, political parties’ consensus, legalization, secrecy and freedom of the vote, accessibility of the internet voting, electoral stakeholders and their roles.

Dr. Satti said that internet voting for overseas Pakistanis must be able to fulfill the essential criteria of voter verification, independent choice of voter and secrecy of ballot. However, the I-voting application made by NADRA that the Internet Voting Task Force (2018) was assigned by the Supreme Court to check has been found severely lacking in these aspects. Sharing the findings from the IVTF Report, he explained that the NADRA application was found deficient after trial testing as it was found susceptible to cyber attacks and manipulation. The IVTF report also concluded that internet voting is unsafe to ensure the secrecy of ballot and can cause the vote buying and voter coercion. He added that no usability studies or tests were undertaken on I-vote to make sure that the users can vote easily and there will always be lack of auditability, and vulnerability to state-level cyberattacks. He said that as per the final audit report of the IVTF, it was decided that since the design and source code of the existing I-vote system was based in the review and documentation and source code provided by NADRA, the audit team recommended an upgradation of the system. Sharing results of the pilot testing of I-voting for Overseas Pakistanis from October 2018 by-elections, Dr. Satti said that many voters faced a lot of phishing attacks as acknowledged by ECP and NADRA. Sharing global lessons, he added that due to the risks attached with internet voting such as sound verification of voters, many countries have experimented with it but have discarded it due to these concerns. He stressed that there is a need to develop capacities of all the stakeholders led by the ECP (such as establishing a dedicated R&D cell within the ECP), to deliver competent national ownership and informed policymaking.

Discussing the feasibility and desirability of using EVMs in Pakistan, Mr. Atif Majeed said that the world has adopted secrecy of ballot as a gold standard for elections. The use of EVMs needs to be understood not just as a product, but about the entire process of using EVMs. In Pakistan, democracy cannot be strengthened simply through the introduction of EVMs, but by securing the system of EVMs to produce transparent results which could facilitate democracy.

Mr. Majeed said that firstly it should be understood that EVMs are not only expensive to produce but also expensive to manage and maintain due to their vulnerability for manipulation and security concerns. Globally, at the moment, out of 195 countries, 167 are self-described democracies. Out of these 167 democracies, only 8 countries are using EVMs, 6 countries are experimenting the use the EVMs while 9 countries have tried using EVMs but have disregarded their use after trial. This means that only 14 out of 167 democratic countries are using or experimenting with EVMs. Apart from United States that has been using one or other form of EVM since 1960 and has about 90% of votes cast electronically today, India began using the EVM roll-out in 1982 and switched to nationwide implementation in 2004, Brazil has been using EVMs since 2000 and Philippines is using EVMs since 2010. Estonia began using EVMs in 2005 and faced cyber-attack in 2007; Namibia the first African country to use EVMs has been using these since 2014 while Mongolia has been using EVMs since 2010. Kyrgyzstan uses a mix of manual votes and optical scanners allowing double counts of votes. Countries that have tested the use of EVMs but no longer use it because of issues with security, vulnerability to manipulation, annual storage cost and safe disposal  of batteries, etc. include France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Argentina, Democratic Republic of Congo, Paraguay and Iraq.

Discussing the cost implications of introducing EVMs in Pakistan, Mr. Atif Majeed  said that in order to use EVMs across Pakistan in 85, 000 polling stations, Pakistan needs from 900,000 to 1 million sets of EVMs, Biometric Verification Units, Printer Units and Controllers which means that in one year Pakistan needs non-stop production of 3000 EVM modules a day. This means a cost of PKR 45 billion to 70 billion. Nearly 300,000 to 500,000 staff require to be trained which requires an estimated PKR 1 billion. Tech support is required in 130 districts in Pakistan which means PKR 250 to 500 million. 12-14 multiple secure warehouses are required to store EVMs to ensure they are not tempered with in-between elections which requires PKR 240-500 million to create and PKR 5-10 billion in storage over 5 years. The election day costs are estimated at PKR 10-15 billion.

In addition to heavy costs involved, EVMs, believed Mr. Atif Majeed, provide a circular problem to Pakistan’s election system and not a tangible solution. Take, for instance, biometric verification of voters. At the moment, NADRA claims that it has data of 82% of voters. On average, each NA Constituency has 780,000 residents and on average 415, 000 registered voters. This means that 18% of non-verifiable voters by NADRA in every constituency would be about 74,750 unverified voters which would again require paper voting. Similar issue is posed in vote counting while using EVMs. Since there is credible global analysis available that EVMs can be hacked or tempered with, Pakistan would use EVMs to count votes electronically but will have to do manual paper-based counting to guard against machine manipulation. Same circular problem is posed to Results Transmission System because EVMs can be manipulated and therefore paper results will have to be compiled and shared with the ECP.

The use of EVMs in Pakistan also has to be understood in the larger context of trust in election and how the use of technology has been tempered with in previous elections. Sharing a case study of 8300 SMS service for the ECP by NADRA, he shared that the app received 100 million user hits through which voters received their polling station information in 2018. A similar technological service was provided by NADRA in the form of Results Transmission System (RTS) through which Polling Officers were to share pictures of results from polling stations to the ECP to be displayed simultaneously on the ECP website. However, suddenly on the election night in 2018, the RTS system reportedly failed due to what the ECP described as “technological failure as the RTS could not bear load of data of tens of millions of voters on election day.” The so-called failure of RTS is unimaginable, said Mr. Majeed, because only results from 85000 polling stations were to be sent by SMS to the ECP. A 2010 report by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) says that Pakistan’s daily SMS traffic stands at 621 million. Therefore, it is difficult to understand how 8300 SMS service served 100 million voters in 2018 but RTS failed due to transmission of results from only 85,000 polling stations.

Discussing the larger issue of vulnerability of EVMs to electoral manipulation, he discussed case studies from India where, over the years, technical experts have proved the possibility of hacking and manipulating EVMs. Through another example, Mr. Majeed explained the live and potent threat of manipulating EVMs in Pakistan through which manipulation of EVMs at a very small scale can completely change the electoral results.

Concluding his presentation, Mr. Atif Majeed proposed a 5-steps approach for Pakistan before introducing EVMs. Firstly, it is important to evaluate whether we require the use of EVMs in Pakistan and if we do, what is the problem we are trying to solve? Secondly, the use of EVMs should not follow a haphazard but a collaborative approach which should learn from international examples and right capacity-building at the ECP. Thirdly, he believed that a security mindset must precede the EVM design process which should focus on the process first, followed by focus on the product. The security mindset starts with the simple assumption that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong and to guard against that in design. Fourth step identified by Mr. Majeed puts emphasis on step-wise approach of starting small but smart and learning to crawl before wanting to run. Pakistan can begin first by voter identification only or vote count only or RTS only but it should not aim to introduce all steps at once through EVMs. Finally & fifthly, Mr. Majeed advises to start the trial of EVMs with urban constituencies and selected polling stations and build teams and processes around that.

Dr. SY Quraishi began his presentation by drawing a comparison between the Election Commissions of India and Pakistan. He said that compared to India where Chief Election Commissioner and Commissioners are appointed by President upon advice of Prime Minister, Pakistan has a more inclusive and bipartisan system of appointment of CEC and commissioners. While India always appointed CEC and commissioners from civil service and administration background, until recently Pakistan relied only on ex-Judiciary which had no administrative experience. In India, he added, all electoral matters are beyond the purview of the courts during election cycle while Pakistan has seen regular intervention of courts in the electoral process. The ECI is not charged with the responsibility to hold local government election while these fall in the purview of the ECP in Pakistan. Similarly, delimitation of constituencies in India lies with that of Delimitation Commission unlike in Pakistan where the ECP is constitutionally mandated to carry out delimitation. While both electoral bodies enjoy respective constitutional protection as that given to judges of Supreme Court, in India that protection is only available with the CEC and not the other two commissioners.

Where, however, the two systems differ widely is the level of public trust enjoyed by the ECI in India and the ECP in Pakistan. While the ECI is widely trusted in its credibility, same is not true of the trust and credibility of the ECP.

In terms of the system of electoral finances in India, candidates are required to have separate Electoral Bank Accounts. The ECI carries out auditing of accounts of candidates and expenditure. It has seen success in appointing expenditure observers as well which have helped a great deal. However, he added, that control on electoral finance is a work in progress and the ECI needs to find newer and more innovative ways to ensure that electoral ceilings and finances are adhered to.

Discussing the roll-out of EVMs in India, Dr. Quraishi said that the ECI used the first EVM in the 1982 Assembly Elections in Kerala. It was only in 1989 that the Representation of People Act of India was amended to allow the use of EVMs. The ECI took its time to bring on board political parties and public to the use of EVMs and since 2004 EVMs are used for each election in India. He highlighted that Pakistan can learn from the long roll-out process of EVMs adopted by the ECI as it  is not something that can be initiated and used within a span of few years.

Discussing the provision of voting for Non-resident Indians (NRIs), he said that NRIs were added to the electoral rolls as asked by the Government in 2011. However, those NRIs who wish to vote need to be physically present to vote in India after getting enrolled on the basis of their permanent address in their passports. He said that the ECI proposed Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS) in 2020 to facilitate voting by NRIs but due to lingering questions about voter identification, ballot secrecy and independent choice by voters, the system has not yet been adopted.

Participants included  Senator Nuzhat Sadiq, PML-N, Senator Musadik Malik, PML-N, Ms. Shaza Fatima Khawaja, MNA, PML-N, Mr. Haider Zaman Qureshi, PPP, Dr. Nafisa Shah, MNA, PPP, Mr. Ahmed Karim Kundi, MPA, PPP, Ms. Shaista Pervaiz, MNA, PML-N, Mr. Bilal Azhar Kayani, Assistant Secretary General, PML-N, Mr. Attaullah Tarar, Deputy Secretary General, PML-N, Dr. Afnan Ullah Khan, Senator, PML-N, Mr. Ali Pervaiz Malik, MNA, PML-N, Mr. Shahid Hamid, lawyer and Ex-Governor of Punjab, Dr. Talat Anwar, Secretary Economic Affairs PTI, Mr. Mussadiq Ghumman, Central Joint Secretary, PTI, Ms. Shunila Ruth, MNA, PTI, Dr. Abdullah Riar, Secretary PTI, Overseas, Mr. Ayub Malik, President Punjab, National Party (NP), Mir. Jan Muhammad Buledi, Secretary General (NP), Mr. Raja Arif Sultan, Member Jamat-i-Islami Pakistan (JIP), Mr. Rasal Khan Babar, Member JIP, Mr. Zahid Akhtar Baloch, Member JIP and Mr. Rauf Mengal, Former MNA, Balochistan National Party – Mengal (BNP-M).

The exclusive delegation from the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) also joined including Mr. Muhammad Khizer Aziz, Director General (IT Operations), ECP, Mr. Nadeem Qasim, Director/Financial Analyst (Political Finance), ECP and Mr. Saeed Gul, Joint Provincial Election Commissioner, ECP.

Other registered participants for the course included: Ms. Mehmal Sarfraz, Neo TV, Ms. Benazir Shah, Newsweek Pakistan, Mr. Farrukh Ptafi from PTV, Ms. Dilarde Teilane and Ms. Sadia Ainuddin from the Delegation of European Union to Pakistan, Mr. Qasim Janjua, Election Team Lead, UNDP Pakistan, Ms. Muneeza Mirza, Assistant Professor from the Department of Political Science, FC College Lahore, Ms. Nazia Ikram, lawyer, Mr. Waleed Yawer, Research Associate at Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI), Dr. Taha Ali, Assistant Professor, National University of Sciences & Technology (NUST) alongside other NUST academic faculty members including Ms. Maryem Usmani, Mr. Anand Kumar, Ms. Hina Bint-e-Haq, and Dr. Idrees Khawaja from Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE).