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Voting from home

Naeem Sadiq

The News, Feb.14, 2017


In 1997, David Wolf became the first human to vote from space.  This was made possible by  Rule 81.35 of  the  Texas legislature which outlines the technical procedures enabling astronauts to cast their vote even while orbiting in space.        Mission control sends astronauts an encrypted email with an absentee ballot inside. Astronauts fill it out and email it back to the Mission Control from where it is sent to the election officials in Houston.  Surprisingly, in yet another part of the same globe, a nuclear state has not been able to figure out how a citizen can  get his / her polling address changed without undertaking tedious bureaucratic hassles of visiting Election Commission offices, filling forms and appending photocopies.


Pakistan refuses to reform its  ineffective and out-dated  electoral system.   In the 2008 general election, among the 81.2 million registered voters, 37 million were either ghost voters, multiple entries or voters registered without any authentic proof of identity.  Balochistan topped the list with 65 per cent bogus votes.   The 2013 election was marred by devastating allegations, court cases and  public protests over complaints of  thumb impressions, magnetic ink, bogus votes,  rigging, stuffing and tampering.   Countless seminars, speeches and parliamentary promises to reform the electoral system have failed to create any impact.  The 2018 election is likely to be a  messy replay of its earlier predecessors.


Pakistan ought to treat its existing electoral system with the tribal wisdom of  the Dakota Indians.   They strongly believed  that “when you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount”.  Why must we insist on spending over  5 billion Rupees and mustering  over one million personnel each time we go to the polls.  All this can be completely avoided if Pakistan were to adopt the Mobile Phone Voting System. Such a system could permanently bid farewell to polling stations, booths, wooden boxes, ballot papers, stamps, magnetic ink, polling officers, returning officers, security staff, conflicts and quarrels, bogus voting,  miscounting,  tampering,  allegations, court cases and a host of other maladies associated with  conventional voting.


There are four essential steps in a mobile phone electoral system –   voter registration,  vote casting,  vote confirmation and computer processed results.  The registration process typically begins about six months prior to an election.  The Election Commission   sends an SMS  to every eligible voter (on a SIM that is verified and linked to CNIC) stating his / her polling address.    The voter responds by confirming  the address as either  ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’.  If confirmed as ‘correct’ the individual receives a return SMS confirming  his / her voter registration.    Simultaneously any other SIM , if registered on the same CNIC is disabled for the purposes of casting a vote.  This step helps to finalise  the name, CNIC, polling address and a NADRA verified SIM for each eligible voter.


In situations where the polling address was either incorrect or required a change, an individual can send the CNIC and the correct address to the Election commission    by using a short code SMS (such as 8400).  There should be no need to visit any office or fill any form.  If required the local ECP office may verify the correctness of the address by a visit or a phone call.  On receipt of the new SMS (with the corrected address), the ECP  repeats actions mentioned in the previous paragraph to confirm registration.


The actual voting process may be spread over 20-30 days.   Voters can vote any time during this period by sending a short SMS (say 8500) stating their CNIC number.  In case the CNIC and the SIM match with the ones used for registration,  the voter receives a set of Provincial  Assembly options.  These ought to be responded within 24 hours by simply stating the serial number of the chosen candidate (say 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5).  Next the voter receives a similar SMS for National Assembly options.  Once completed the voter is sent an SMS that contains a 5 digit secret code.  This code must be saved separately and deleted from the phone.


The third step involves voter verification.  After 3 to 10 days of casting a vote, each voter receives an SMS that requires to be responded to by stating the secret code sent earlier by the ECP.  If the voter responds by stating the correct code, he/she receives a final SMS confirming that the vote has been cast and counted.


By the year 2018, Pakistan is expected to have about 105 million eligible voters and about 160 million mobile connections.   The mobile phone voting system could act as a game changer.  In one stroke it could demolish considerations such as ‘biradri’, ethnicity, ‘wadera’ influence, party pressure, bribes,  low female turnout ,  access to polling stations and rigging.      Pakistan is likely to gain little from its half-hearted efforts at tinkering with its existing electoral system. With an approximately 80 percent cell phone density, there may be little to explain our reluctance to revolutionary reforms.