Manual Voting System in Era of Digital Identities

Manual voting system in an era of biometric revolution is tedious, prone to rigging and a recipe for chaotic elections as Pakistan witnessed in its last General Elections held last year in May 2013 casting serious doubts over its fairness and credibility. The lack of public confidence in the electoral process also undermined the dream of having a fair, free and transparent election. In a country like Pakistan democracy is the most desirable option for ending poverty, creating wealth and building a vibrant democratic society but to achieve that goal the underlying system that breeds democratic leadership through elections needs to be overhauled.

Pakistan is one of the leading developing countries having in place a very systematic biometric based civil registry system maintained by NADRA that is used for citizen identification for a wide range of public and private services. The same registry was also used for the first time to compile electoral rolls for the May 2013 General Elections. The mechanism of photo electoral roll was introduced for the first time in the country to bring transparency, accuracy and help in establishing identity of voters before issuance of ballot papers. 86.19m voters were registered in the electoral rolls with highest number of female voter registration ever.

The process for compiling voters using biometric technology to eliminate multiple registrations was a fantastic achievement but unfortunately, it was only half measures as the most important process of eliminating multiple votes was left to the manual system of using paper based ballot boxes. Massive irregularities were witnessed during the elections including missing ballot boxes, bogus votes and manipulation in results. Election rigging videos went viral on social media in Pakistan highlighting the failure of the system and the much needed move towards electronic voting system based on biometric technology.

The affected political parties approached the Election Commission of Pakistan to recount votes and verify thumb impressions on two national assembly and seven provincial assembly seats using NADRA biometric thumb verification system. Staggering 60,000 out of 83,000 votes were found bogus during verification of thumb impression process in only one constituency of NA-256 Karachi. During forensic investigation by NADRA one person namely Waseem Anwer Hussain had casted 35 votes. The revelations of bogus voting resulted in harassment of ex- Chairman NADRA Tariq Malik over thumb verification of other influential constituencies mainly NA-118 in Punjab Province and consequently he was sacked from his office but later on restored by Islamabad High Court. His reinstatement resulted in further victimization and finally resigned from service citing personal reasons. 

The result of verification of vote count using thumb impression has undermined public confidence in the integrity of elections and democracy in Pakistan where most believe the influential have again got away with stealing public mandate. Voting is a shared ritual of democracy and has been practiced for over two centuries now yet the systems by which they’re run seem more beleaguered and fragile. Improving elections system in Pakistan will neither be easy or inexpensive but it’s worth it to implement a biometric based voting system which NADRA has introduced lately. The legitimacy of our system of voting is strengthened by increasing transparency and access for citizens and their confidence that votes are counted accurately and securely. Elections are contests over power. Ensuring that Pakistanis have no reason to doubt the results is vital to our country’s health. Most developing countries like Nepal, India, Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, and Haiti are moving or have moved towards biometric based elections system yet a country like Pakistan having a very advanced biometric based civil registry than these nations is still stuck in ballot box voting system due to political indifference and lack of will for “change”. Who knows if biometric voting mechanism would have been used for the May 2013 elections the results could have been entirely different or not.