The awaiting electoral disaster
Express Tribune, 13 December, 2018
The fact that some 15 million individuals are likely to be defacto disenfranchised if they do not seek correction in their polling address by 31 December 2018 and the fact that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is issuing this warning four years before the actual date of election should be viewed as welcome developments. They not only suggest that the ECP is beginning to take notice but also draw attention to the monumental disenfranchisement likely to happen in the next elections.
There is a serious concern that even now the ECP has very little idea of the magnitude of this disenfranchisement. In order to understand this issue let us consider, as an example, a Pakistani citizen having three possible addresses, A, B and C. These could be a ‘Mustaqil’ address A, a ‘Mojuda’ address B and any other address, say C, at which an individual may have been registered for voting.
The ECP’s latest pronouncements require that individuals who are registered at an address C, should approach the ECP in person and do the necessary paperwork to have their voting address changed to either the ‘Mustaqil’ or the ‘Mojuda’ address mentioned on their CNIC. Alternately their polling address will, by default be shifted to their permanent address. This may be the politest way to disenfranchise a voter.
The ECP has never acknowledged the fact that it disenfranchised some 10 million people in 2018 elections because they were registered at their permanent address while they actually lived in another city. Nudged by the Election Act 2017, the ECP now realizes that another 15 million people will not be able to cast their vote next time as their voting address is registered neither at A nor at B. Thus as many as 25 million people are likely to be disenfranchised in the next election.
The root cause of this massive disenfranchisement does not lie in the polling addresses. It lies in the inability of the ECP to provide an easy mechanism of making a change. The proposed process is complex beyond words and not likely to be followed by more than 5 % affectees. A short survey reveals that a very small segment of the affected population got to read this ad or know its contents.
It is naïve for the ECP to think that most Pakistanis can download and print Form 21 from the ECP’s website or they will take a day off from work to visit an ECP office to get their polling addresses changed. A random survey of 100 persons revealed that not even one person knew where an ECP office was. Does ECP really think that the complex and clumsily designed Form 21 that contains statements like “ چہارم۔ مجہے کسی عدالت مجاز نے فاترالعقل قرار نہین دیا۔” can be filled by an ordinary Pakistani? The Form is full of redundant questions such as “confirm you are a Pakistani citizen, confirm you are at least 18 years old and confirm that you do have a national identity card” – when a cnic has already been attached with the application.
Section 27 of the Election Act 2017 needs to be changed to enable all citizens (and not just the government employees) to vote from any location. It must be understood that millions of individuals in today’s environment are frequently required to relocate themselves from one city to another. It is impossible for them to get their ‘mojuda’ address repeatedly changed on their CNICs. Hence the possible need to vote from locations other than A or B is valid not just for the government employees but for all citizens.
The concept of forcing citizens to personally visit government offices to deliver an application is outright colonial and archaic. A completely re-engineered voter registration / address change system needs to be designed where no citizen is required to visit any ECP office. Using a phone / SIM registered on one’s own name, a short code SMS, similar to 8300 could enable a citizen, to provide information such as name, CNIC and the requested voting address. Such a request could include additional information such as the name and phone number of employer or neighbour. This would bypass the impossible process of Form 21, cnic copy, thumb impression, certificate of employment or a visit to the ECP office.
There are numerous smart ways in which the ECP can create simple mechanisms to verify statements made by an individual. The idea of completing this task by 31 December 2018 is beyond sanity and should be spread over a longer period to allow sufficient time for a campaign on TV and receiving change requests followed by meticulous verification. Sticking to the existing proposal could defacto disenfranchise about 25 million voters in the next election.