The Overseas Pakistanis have been promised the right to vote by all Presidents and Prime Ministers since the late 90's. I filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2011 as Secretary General PTI. The Court ordered ECP to do it. President Zardari also passed an Ordnance in 2012 in this regard which lapsed. On May 20th, after neglecting this issue decades despite Court orders, the ECP dropped this bombshell in the Parliamentary Electoral Reforms Committee that is not possible. My proposal is:
Voting Methodology for Overseas Pakistanis
The ECP and Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis has been asked by the Supreme Court in response to my petition to suggest ways and means to ensure that Overseas Pakistanis are able to vote. Many Prime Ministers and Presidents of our country while visiting abroad during the last two decades have also made similar promises to overseas Pakistanis.
However the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and the ECP have not been able to suggest a comprehensive solution yet, as the matter is very complicated and may require specific laws and constitutional amendments which have to be made:
- There are an estimated six to seven million Pakistanis who are working abroad. A big percentage of them would be eager to vote, probably more so than resident Pakistanis.
- A postal ballot system has existed in the laws but probably has never been used for overseas Pakistanis.
- The time between finalisation of candidates by the RO, the printing of ballot papers which comes later, and the voting day is usually not more than a couple of weeks. This time is too short in the context of OP’s voting because:
- For the candidates to inform their overseas voters as they would no have information about the location or contact with overseas voters.
- In Pakistan this responsibility is not that of ECP alone, and is primarily conducted by the candidates themselves through various means, who even go house to house carrying this info.
- There is no existing ability or capacity of Pakistani embassies and consulates overseas to establish voting booths in their premises or elsewhere in the city and further to be able to man them with polling staff for a single-day exercise. This is virtually impossible.
- To send polling staff overseas by the ECP would involve huge financial implications as well as those of logistics.
- If voters are asked to vote physically, most voters would not drive in some cases hundreds of miles to be able to vote. For example in the US it is difficult to imagine that people to Washington (embassy) or to Houston (consulate). This would be true for many countries around the world where the consulate or the embassy would be hundreds or even thousands of miles from the voter.
- In many countries, specially middle eastern governments would not allow such huge congregations of thousands of people coming to vote with resulting sloganeering etc., to take place around an embassy or consulate for example in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dubai, Muscat, Abu Dhabi etc.
- Possibility of postal ballot:
- Sending of ballot papers by courier to international destinations is possible but would be expensive to ECP (Approximate cost would be at least Rs 1000/-). Similarly it would cost an overseas voter the same amount to return the marked ballot paper.
- Time involved in this two-way exercise will not be less than two to three weeks at best.
- The postal ballot system in Pakistan itself has had a very low response. ECP should have the figures but we believe that it would be less than 5%. So this option if it has not worked within the country, is impractical for overseas Pakistanis voting.
If the parliament decides that Overseas Pakistanis must be facilitated to vote the following logical decisions have to be made:
- Physical Voting is not possible.
- Postal Voting is not possible or practical.
- Electronic Voting is the only option:
- Procedures exist where from a few dollars to millions, are transacted and purchases made electronically from throughout the world.
- Clients can call their banks on their cell phones also to do similar huge transactions.
- Among many possibilities and systems that need to be evaluated, new voice recognition options (Voice Biometrics) have been found to be 98% reliable. This or any other process decided upon can be combined with other screening methods, for example using CNIC information, can be made 100% accurate for Cell phone or electronic voting. Banks use a combination of these for huge transactions. UBL in Pakistan is already using Voice Recognition where a client calls and his voice is matched and confirmed with the help of an earlier recording.
- When I was Secretary General of PTI, we used IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system for our elections in 2012-13 where the voter base was more than 3.5 million people. People called in to vote on their cellular phone and the IVR informed the person about candidates in their area/constituency and recorded the vote... all on cell phone.
- For voting of overseas Pakistanis changes in the Electoral laws and a constitutional amendment would also be required.
As the need is specific we have to think outside the box. The process id doable. A committee of experts may be constituted to evaluate electronic/cell phone voting possibilities. I can suggest a few names of experts who have implemented similar processes for banks in Pakistan for financial transactions that require:
- Electronic/Biometric identification of the person not present but in telephonic or electronic contact.
- Confirmation and implementation of his transaction (in our case choice of vote).
The report by the committee must be submitted within 15 days.
My conclusions regarding the impossibility of Postal Ballot, and Physical Ballot for the Overseas Pakistanis are the same as the report of the Committee of Election Commission of India that was submitted by the ECP for our info on 20th May 2015 but I had stated the same in my petition in the Supreme Court in 2011. It seems that what comes from abroad is ‘bible’. Actually we are not putting our minds to the task on how to handle ‘our’ specific needs and are working on either copy/paste or looking at what ‘cant’ work rather than what ‘can’. On a similar issue of EVMs, India led the way while we 30 years later are lost and confused, making it easier to say…. ‘it cannot be done’.
Dr Arif Alvi