I-Voting And The Problem Of Low Voter Turnout In Pakistan's Elections
On February 8, Pakistan witnessed the much anticipated General Elections of 2024. The road to the elections was extremely rocky, with contesting parties repeatedly claiming that they were being targeted, alliances were forcibly being formed and the Supreme Court of Pakistan found itself playing a larger role than it was mandated to play under the Constitution, changing the very landscape of the election itself.
Despite these happenings, neither the electoral bodies nor the political parties paused to contemplate the fact that nearly half the registered voters don’t turn out to vote in the election, and even the most liberal estimates place this election’s turnout at less than 50%. Many studies have been brought forth regarding such a low turnout figure and one such study highlighted one of the reasons for low turnout is that women are not encouraged to vote, even in cities where many households believe that women have no business going into polling stations.
Many women struggle to vote simply because the men in their households believe that voting is a fruitless exercise and a waste of time. These women become disenfranchised, because they cannot go to polling stations located miles away from their homes and this passive disenfranchisement is not just limited to rural areas, but to urban cities as well. Unfortunately, they are not the only disenfranchised group as Pakistan is home to an estimated 27 million people with disabilities, or 12% of the population, according to Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund. Disabilities make participating in the electoral process a grueling task. Many such individuals suffer from blindness, cognitive limitations, and physical disabilities that make visiting a polling station simply impossible.
Pakistan has done little, save for printing images of a wheelchair on the election portal, to enfranchise these individuals. Most polling stations offer no support to disabled individuals, forcing them to stay at home and watch from the sidelines.
In addition to these groups, some individuals economically migrate around the country and find it impossible to return to their constituency. These individuals are not limited to just the middle class, as poverty-stricken individuals struggling to earn every day have little cause to drop everything and incur huge expenses to return to their constituency in far-flung areas for the simple act of voting.
There lies no doubt that low voter turnout is a serious issue in our electoral process and this must be remedied. Token policies such as discounting constituencies that have less than 10% female turnout is a good measure, but ineffective against this growing problem. The solution has to be that such groups of disenfranchised individuals are made part of the electoral process without visiting the polling station, and for this, I-voting can be the answer. I-voting, often confused with e-voting is different from the latter since i-voting specifically focuses on Internet Based Voting, where an individual can utilize their internet connectivity to cast their vote, whereas the former is the use of electronic balloting of votes in contrast to paper balloting, and is often associated with Electronic Voting Machines.
E-voting, whilst an advancement for elections in Pakistan, is not likely to solve the low voter turnout issue because EVMs will still be located in polling stations, which are very difficult to access for females of conservative households, disabled persons and internal migrants. I-voting can help offer a solution to these groups and many nations have been experimenting with this form of voting. Several US states and Australian states, such as the State of South Wales, have I-voting facilities for disenfranchised groups who struggle to vote, and this has been done since 2011 with 286,000 ballots being cast by voters in 2015 in South Wales.
Canada has experimented with i-voting as well, and has been using i-voting for municipal elections and is now looking to conduct experiments for such a facility to be provided in the National Elections. France conducted their primary election in 2013 with this facility. On 13th December 2018, the Pakistani Election Commissioner implemented online voting for overseas Pakistanis for the by-election in PP-168 Lahore and Pakistan was lauded internationally for taking such an initiative. Pakistan is thus no stranger to this process.
One of the leading countries in i-voting is Estonia, which has been experimenting with i-voting for the last decade and a half and in 2019, 44% of their ballots were cast online, and Pakistan stands to learn much from their effort. Estonia has repeatedly highlighted that technology is not the issue, but the building of a digital society that utilizes digital solutions to digital problems, and has a digitized information network in the form of Smart Card Identification. Pakistan has a strong digitized presence with over 131 million broadband subscribers and 189 million mobile subscribers and all those individuals have Smart National Identity cards, thus making it possible for Pakistan to experiment and slowly implement i-voting options for disenfranchised groups. Pakistan can initially start slowly by implementing such facilities in municipal elections that witness extremely low turnouts and Annual Bar Elections to gather data. The collected data can then be used to understand implementation issues and then work to enfranchise classes who don’t visit the polling stations. In a few years, this process will immediately start to bear fruit.
Some have highlighted that there exist concerns regarding security and hacking within the i-voting cloud, however Estonia has demonstrated that this can be resolved. Security issues such as hacking into the system were combated by the Estonian government by varying the servers upon which the system was placed. Recognition issues can be dealt with online registration by such groups, which has drastically increased voter security for countries such as Australia. The path can be treacherous, but in this connected world, nations all over, including India, are looking to create the groundwork that could lead to a digitized election, especially for individuals who are severely handicapped either due to social structures, economic constraints or their physical limitations.
Enfranchising the disenfranchised is the constitutional responsibility of the government of Pakistan, and the Chief Election Commissioner and as the world pioneers innovative solutions for the electoral future, Pakistan cannot sit back, making do with polls that have low voter turnouts, who place half-inked stamps on pieces of paper. The credibility of Pakistani elections is already repeatedly called into question by the world, and these steps will not only help strengthen the image of Pakistan as a democracy, but also lend its electoral process credibility not only in front of the international community, but to its citizenry as well.
As democracies all over the world seek to adopt online voting solutions, Pakistan's system is archaic and largely paper based. It is time that the government
My article on the issue regarding low voter turn out and its solution. Many individuals in this election wanted to vote but were unable to do so because they were disabled or were from households that just werent interested in voting. Their women couldnt vote because the men considered it a fruitless exercise and we can see it here that even this time, the election witnessed a less than 50% turn out.
Over 50 million voters cast votes in February 08 election and voters turnout remained 48 percent, the Free and Fair Election Network said in its preliminary