Harnessing technology for electoral transparency


In the midst of Pakistan’s never ending disasters and serious governance challenges, streamlining the voter’s list is the last thing on the public agenda. It is true that the multi-faced challenges facing Pakistan today require radical steps. But, sometimes, small tangible steps can lay the basis for radical change. After all, even the most radical institutional change is laced with small incremental steps that leave an enduring legacy. Restoring the sanctity of the electoral rolls is one such step that can have a far-reaching implication for the way we choose our government, hold it accountable and force it to deliver. The last voter’s list was marred with errors and contradictions. This has been a legacy of decades of manipulation, where massaging the electoral data became an important instrument for electoral engineering. The decision by current leadership of the Election Commission of Pakistan to update and streamline all electoral lists using latest technological tools is likely to revolutionise the voting process. It is our obligation to explain the processes behind this exercise to the citizens at large – who are the real stakeholders of this country. This is the main objective of this article.

Longstanding demand
An amendment in the election law promulgated by Parliament earlier this year has made Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs) mandatory for registration and casting of vote, when more than 93 per cent of adult population has registered themselves with NADRA. This is a historic step that promises to bring greater transparency in the next general elections. This is an area where elected parliamentarians deserve much credit. It was a long standing demand of all political parties, civil society and media to conduct free and fair elections. In a country whose birth was itself the outcome of electoral ballot, it is an open secret that scientific rigging in elections has remained a festering issue that has often marred the credibility of the electoral process. In the backdrop of this important legislation, it was obvious that the institution responsible for maintaining civil registry was to be involved in updating the electoral rolls. Civil registration will be used this time to conduct meritorious elections, a practice followed in most civilised democracies. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has sought the extended involvement of NADRA in the election process to ensure computerised credible, fair and accurate electoral rolls with a vision of ‘one voter, one CNIC, one vote’. NADRA has agreed to participate in this important exercise and a contract with a framework for ‘rules of engagement’ was signed between the two parties. Use of modern technology would put a tab on interventions by “various individuals in some institutions” that need not be named. There is a hope that harnessing technology in the electoral process would go a long way towards bringing greater transparency and credibility to the electoral process.

The ‘superman’ voter
Transparency of voters list is of utmost importance but it remained the most neglected domain in a country like Pakistan where vote counting has become more important than vote casting. Reconciliation of Final Electoral List 2007 (FER 2007) with NADRA followed directly from a strong demand by political parties to streamline the electoral lists. The only way to comb old voters list out of ‘unverified identities’ was to reconcile it with civil registry known as citizens national database. Already, NADRA has issued 87.5 million CNIC against the projected 93.8 million adult population. It thus covers 93 per cent of eligible voters. These citizens have come to NADRA during the last 11 years and recorded their digital finger prints and photographs. Here, it should also be considered that the remaining 7 per cent population is not disenfranchised but have the option of inclusion in final electoral rolls subject to obtaining CNIC during door to door verification, display period through claims or objections and through continuous revision till announcement of election schedule. Reconciling the electoral and citizens databases is a no brainer, since most countries where civil registries have registered more than 80 per cent of eligible voters are already using this as a competitive advantage in not only conducting elections but rolling out social security programs.

Reconciling voters list
The strategy was, therefore, simple. It involved reconciling voters list used in the last election with the citizens database in accordance with the business rules duly approved by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). In this process, CNICs in the voters list were verified. The successfully verified voters were retained, while the unverified names were removed and augmented with what NADRA was left with. So, here is how it worked: if you were registered with a fake identity card in voters list, you are out, if you were registered multiple times. So, if you are a Mr Superman from Gujar-Khan who is registered 26 times in 5 constituencies in a 3 hour drive radius, one of your records is retained, while the remaining 25 are ‘gone with the wind’. What is more, in case you are absent from the previous voters list but recorded in NADRA’s citizen database, your name is added to the draft electoral list. For a long time, our arm chair intelligentsia has escaped the electoral process, but now the ECP and NADRA are providing a welcome opportunity to participate in the democratic process. So, please make sure you are at home when ECP folks come to verify your record. One cannot emphasize enough the importance of registering your vote. It must be made to count. Election Commission of Pakistan took an initiative to start consultative process during this exercise. All political parties were briefed about strategy and were updated with progress through four sessions. Suggestions and feedback of political parties were incorporated into the program. This not only helped build confidence of major stakeholders in electoral process but also brought political transparency in this revision process.

Draft electoral rolls
For its part, NADRA has successfully completed the task of printing the draft electoral rolls consisting of more than 80 million eligible voters under the close supervision of ECP. The electoral rolls have been handed over to ECP for further scrutiny and door to door verification. The last electoral roll that was used in 2008 elections was replete with many errors. Several entries were duplicate, misappropriated and based on fake identities. NADRA has synthesised the 81 million entries in last electoral list into 44 million verified and 37 million unverified voters. But, the scale of errors was truly mind boggling. The details of the 37 million ‘unverified voters’ is enough to shock us beyond imagination. The ugly flaws in the 2008 electoral rolls demonstrate the following uncomfortable realities: 2.14 million fake computerised identity cards that were never issued by NADRA; 2.49 million duplicate CNIC entries; 6.49 million duplicate MNIC entrees. There were 15 million voters without any identity and 11 million fake manual identity cards which the government had never issued. The new business rules approved by the ECP have allowed NADRA to exclude the unverified 37 million voters from the list and add 36 million new voters, who acquired their ID cards from the inception of NADRA till the preparation of the draft electoral rolls Rs in 2011 in their place. (The final electoral rolls used in 2008 elections still remain intact till the time final electoral roll is complete and is published by Election Commission of Pakistan in 2012).

The curious timing of Pco
So far so good. But, as NADRA and ECP were trailing smooth on the project highway, we encountered a major speed-breaker. The Population Census Organisation (PCO) has curiously timed the undertaking of the census after 13 years. The PCO have now become a major player in this project, since in the aftermath of the housing census the census organization is likely to increase the total number of census blocks (or, electoral area blocks) from 102,000 to 149,000, where each block consists of 250 families. Such a major reshuffling of demographic definition, due to an increase in population meant that NADRA and ECP had to reassign each voter in the right census or electoral block. The quick fix to the problem was that ECP gave a form to the housing census department that could be readily used during the census to record information linking CNICs with the voting location. NADRA had to realign voters’ list as per information provided by the census organisation and print it for ECP’s scrutiny. The Election Commission of Pakistan Team comprising of 211,000 members is now making door to door contact to re-verify the voter’s information. This would help to map the CNICs of voters with respect to their census blocks. It is the first time in the history of Pakistan that the census team is going door to door for such verification. There is great optimism that this new strategy of form verification would replace the older modes of manually collecting the information that generated significant errors. With such digitisation, the margin of error is likely to reduce considerably.

Door to door verification
As citizens demanding rights, it is our obligation to cooperate with the verifying staff knocking our doors. If change in electoral area is required, Verification Officer will fill form – Alif for single voter and Form – 2 for family or group of voters; if the voter is dead or shifted to another location, the family needs to report this to Verifiying Officer who will fill Form-B; and voter’s particulars on draft electoral rolls requires correction, staff needs to be assisted in correcting the record in Register J in accordance to particulars available on CNIC. Once these changes are submitted back to NADRA, we will digitise them and subsequently print the ‘Preliminary Electoral Rolls (PER)”, which will be displayed according to law for a predetermined duration for the filing of objections and claims. Again, NADRA intends to support the ECP using modern technology by providing an outreach to eligible voters using SMS technology. This would help check where one is registered as a voter and, if so, in which electoral area. During current door-to-door verification exercise the NADRA teams are facilitating the registration of eligible voters that have not been registered so far and in rectifying errors in the list. NADRA’s 800 data acquisition units, including 220 mobile registration vans and offices countrywide had been directed to work with the district election staff. Citizens without CNICs would also receive support during the ongoing verification exercise. Potential voters have the leverage to opt for their permanent or temporary address for exercising their right to vote.

We are the ‘Khomeini’
The Final Electoral Rolls (FER) will be printed before the next election and, in order to bring more transparency, it has been decided that the FER will contain photographs and thumbprints of the voter. Blank spaces will be left on the FER for capturing thumbprint using magnetic ink before a voter casts his/her vote. Presiding officer will ensure that the left thumb impression is captured at the time of issuance of ballot paper which will then be automatically scanned and matched with the corresponding CNICs using NADRA’s finger printing software. If pursued with diligence, sincerity and transparency, the above-mentioned changes will bring a qualitative change to the electoral process, making it more credible in the eyes of the public. The future of a democratic Pakistan rests on credible electoral rolls that are free from egregious mistakes. The ongoing electoral reforms deserve the support of every Pakistani on a non-partisan basis. Rather than infinitely waiting for a Khomeini, we as citizens need to rise up and play our part in putting in place the nuts and bolts of institutional change.