Cleaning the stairs
“Study these four men washing down the steps of this unpalatable Bombay hotel. The first pours water from a bucket, the second scratches the tiles with a twig broom, the third uses a rag to slop the dirty water down the steps into another bucket, which is held by the fourth. After they have passed, the steps are as dirty as before. They are not required to clean, but simply to execute an assigned duty.” ~ V.S.Naipaul, An Area of Darkness.
The 2008 elections were conducted with 37.2 million fake votes. No one was held accountable. Not a word of apology was offered. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) simply executed an assigned duty and left the stairs dirty as before. Come 2012 and the new electoral lists are finalized for yet another ‘free and fair’ election. But that is not likely to happen. At least three types of serious lacunae make the new lists as conspicuously erroneous as the previous ones. Some 10 million voters who possess CNIC do not find their names included in the list. Another estimated 10 million who died since the last count have not been removed from the electoral list, thus making this category vulnerable to bogus voting. Finally there are millions who will be disenfranchised simply because they do not currently reside at the voting address shown in the electoral roll. Thus the ECP has once again succeeded in execution of an assigned duty while leaving the stairs as dirty as they were in 2008.
We now learn that only in Sindh, some 560,000 people have already filed applications for correction of their addresses. One knows how hesitant people are to go to a government office and be subjected to the misery of waiting, being asked to come again or filling these or those forms. Hence the numbers we are looking at represent just the tip of an iceberg. The ECP however insists that millions of people must lose their one or two days of wages instead of finding an efficient way to correct errors that were created by its own self.
It is imperative that the ECP must immediately come out with an easy solution that does not require millions of people to undergo the misery of visiting the provincial ECP offices. While there are many ways to improve a process, this article suggests one simple method that could help to purify the lists within weeks rather than months.
The ECP already provides for a citizen to write his CNIC number and send an SMS to 8300. The ECP responds immediately by a return SMS providing the electoral address and information. So far so good. However this is where the problem begins. There are no further instructions that define what must a person do if he or she does not get a response ( a case of non registration) or the response is received but it indicates a wrong electoral address. Just like 8300, the ECP and NADRA must announce another phone number to report errors and seek corrections. Say the new number is 8400. When a person writes his/her CNIC number and sends an SMS to 8400, a response must follow with the following three options.
Press 1 if your name is not on the voting list
Press 2 if your voting address is incorrect
Press 3 if you wish to report that a member of your family has expired whose name needs to be removed from the list.
In case of Option 1, where the name is not on the voting list, the ECP gets a CNIC number, which it verifies for correctness from NADRA and the individual is automatically brought onto the voting list without any further hassle. A week later the individual can use the SMS 8300 system to confirm if this has indeed been done. This action takes care of one large segment of errors without any one needing to visit any ECP office.
In case of Option 2, the ECP gets to know that for a particular CNIC, the voting address requires a correction. The legitimacy of this information must however be verified. This can be done in two steps. ECP staff calls back and gets the correct address on phone. This is followed up by ECP staff visiting the location and verifying the address as per ECP’s standard procedure. The third option essentially seeks citizens’ voluntary participation in cleaning up the electoral lists. A family may use Option 3 to report the death of one of its members. As this option is vulnerable to misuse, this too could be handled in the two step process described for the second option.
It is important to understand that we have no option but to clean up the electoral lists. It must not be made into a case or an excuse for delaying the next elections. It is a task that ought to be done correctly using simple tools of technology and basic principles of quality assurance. The ECP has kept its stairs dirty for too long. It is time for it to stop emulating the washing syndrome modeled by the four men at the Bombay Hotel. It must begin to put together its act and clean up its stairs right now and on yearly basis – as required by the Electoral Rolls Act and Rules 1974.
The News 16 August 2012