The ‘external’ vote

By Maleeha Lodhi
Published in DAWN on Jun 13, 2022

VOTING by expatriate Pakistanis has been a hot topic of discussion in parliament, judiciary and the media. There is no disagreement on voting by our diaspora. Their right to vote is provided by law. Although the recent amendment of the election law was returned by the president to parliament for review, overseas Pakistanis’ right to vote was never in question.

A joint parliamentary session subsequently adopted the amendment bill. Earlier, while hearing a petition challenging this, the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court said amendments to the 2017 Election Act did not deprive expat Pakistanis of the vote. The petition was withdrawn.

The key questions in this regard are who is eligible to vote, how should the ballot be cast and what should be the time frame for implementation. A well-researched article published in Dawn’s magazine of Feb 27 examines the likely political impact of overseas voting and reaches the striking conclusion that it would be a “game changer” that could even determine the outcome of general elections.

Over 120 countries and territories today allow what is called external voting. But there are vast differences in the way this is implemented, how votes are cast and criteria for those entitled to vote, including length of stay away from their country of origin. Some countries use citizens’ intent to return to their home country as eligibility for them to vote.

Few countries, however, have introduced electronic means for external voting. In South Asia, India allows NRIs to vote but only those who retain the country’s passport, are not citizens of another country, and physically present on polling day in their respective constituency. Registration of overseas Indians remains low and only 25,000 are estimated to have travelled back to vote in the last general election. Remote voting by postal ballot is now under consideration. Bangladesh and Nepal are still working on arrangements for voting by their diasporas. Sri Lankan expats abroad don’t have voting rights yet.

Political consensus is essential for the legitimacy of the system that is eventually adopted.

The Election Commission of Pakistan was charged by the 2017 Act with enabling overseas Pakistanis to vote. Those entitled to vote are holders of a NICOP card (national identity card for overseas Pakistanis) even if they are dual nationals. Some argue that voting rights should be confined to those who haven’t acquired citizenship of other countries, (several states do this), because they have sworn allegiance to another country and may have ‘divided loyalties’. They also do not have to face the consequences of their vote. But the issue here seems to be settled.

There are 8.6 million NICOP holders on the electoral rolls (as of June 2021). According to the ECP, 6.7m are in the Gulf/ Middle East, just under a million in UK and Europe, about 290,000 in the US, 180,000 in Canada and 401,870 in other countries. Of these 5m are on Punjab’s voter lists; 2.2m in KP; 1m in Sindh; 142,325 in Balochistan and 97,744 in Islamabad.

The ECP was enjoined by the 2017 law to conduct pilot projects in by-elections to “ascertain the efficacy, secrecy, security and financial feasibility” of such voting. Assisted by NADRA, it did that in 2018 for 35 national and provincial constituencies, which had 631,909 overseas voters. Being the first exercise of its kind only 7,461 expats registered online and just 6,233 voted via the internet. This suggests political parties didn’t show much interest at that time.

In its report of this experience ECP’s Internet Voting Task Force identified several flaws and challenges that needed to be addressed before the system could become operational for general elections. It recommended a gradual approach starting with elections to non-political bodies and then local polls and by-elections, to enable people to understand the system and allow administrators to test, review and improve it. Significantly it noted that “some of the world’s most technologically advanced countries have either rolled back online voting or have deliberately chosen not to deploy it.”

While the ECP, which has done impressive work, is exploring an appropriate mechanism for external voting, the case for and against online voting by overseas Pakistanis is worth considering. Among its oft-cited advantages are that it offers easy accessibility to a dispersed diaspora, makes for faster counting, simplifies vote management and saves both time and money. Technology however is a double-edged sword. The argument against internet voting is that it is inconsistent with core principles of voting — secrecy and security. Nor does it fully comply with requirements for election integrity. Secrecy of the ballot and voter anonymity are fundamental principles in democracies which internet voting doesn’t meet. The voter verification process too has loopholes.

Election security is a worldwide concern and raises vexed questions about the threat of cyberattacks and data breaches including by hostile states and hackers. This can even compromise national security giving foreign powers’ ingress into elections. Clone or fake sites can mislead voters and create chaos. How would the uninitiated in an unregulated digital space avoid such minefields?

As the majority of overseas Pakistani voters reside in the Gulf and mostly comprise labour it raises the question of whether they would be familiar with the internet to work this system. If they are unable to, the voting method will lack inclusiveness and disenfranchise a large number of expats. It would risk others casting the vote for them, which could open it to manipulation and undermine the election’s integrity. All these problems have to be solved if this mode is adopted. Voters both at home and abroad need to have trust and confidence in the system. Without that it will always be subject to controversy. Already Pakistan has an unedifying history of disputed elections and losing parties refusing to accept results.

This calls for careful evaluation and a step-by-step approach in which the ECP determines and then recommends the most secure and effective voting method and timeline for implementation, ensuring no group of expats is disenfranchised. It is examining various voting mechanisms — postal, internet, electronic, embassy in-person. It will have to run pilot tests to ascertain which one is feasible. But it will be up to parliament to approve what the ECP recommends. Political consensus will be essential for the legitimacy of any system.

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