Plans for online-voting system for expatriate Pakistanis suffer setback during Supreme Court briefing

ISLAMABAD: The hopes of millions of Pakistanis living overseas that they would be able to vote in July’s general election might be dashed.

The country’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), met overwhelming opposition from politicians and others when it presented its Internet-based “e-voting” system during a briefing in the Supreme Court auditorium on April 12.

The court decided to create a task force to examine the system after lawmakers and technical experts raised concerns about the planned roll-out of the country’s first online-voting for overseas Pakistanis, which is due in a matter of weeks.

“We don’t want to damage our elections and make them controversial,” said Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar.

Justice Nisar previously found in favor of petitioners’ pleas to extend voting rights to the 7.9 million Pakistanis living abroad, and ordered NADRA and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to devise a system that would make this possible.

Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed praised the CJP’s decision, and said he had suggested the task force include people from inside and outside the political system.

“There are people who are highly qualified and they should be part of the task force,” he said. “The election commission alone cannot take this huge responsibility.”

The likelihood of the system being launched in time for the election in July depends on the findings of the task force, he added.

The briefing for lawmakers and ministry officials was prepared by NADRA in collaboration with the ECP. It was observed by a panel of three apex court judges, who quizzed the NADRA officials about the voting portal’s security.

They responded that they had taken measures to prevent unauthorized access but could not guarantee foolproof security.

“There is no system that is 100 percent hack proof,” said a NADRA representative, who told the judges that a third party would need to evaluate and assess the system’s fairness, integrity, and security. The final product would cost approximately $1.3 million, the authority said.

Experts from Pakistan’s three leading universities gave their views on front-end features and visuals of the system. However, they pointed out that they could not give a full expert opinion without examining the back end of the software coding.

“This is a discredited model,” said Taha Ali from the National University of Science and Technology. “The world has moved away from this [voting model],” he added, giving examples of failed similar online-voting systems in the United States, France, Germany and other countries.

The Attorney General of Pakistan, Ashtar Ausaf Ali, also urged caution during the briefing and said deliberations must continue to ensure voter confidentiality, the stability of the system, and ease of implementation.

Majority politicians voiced their concerns about the software but praised the wider initiative.

Syed Naveed Qamar, of the Pakistan Peoples Party, said he doubts all the concerns can be addressed and resolved in time for the election in July. Another lawmaker warned that the country should not experiment with the upcoming poll.

However, Anwar Mansoor Khan, one of the main campaigners for overseas voting rights, said: “There are delaying tactics being used.

“For instance, today they said that they wanted to have a commission formed to look into this. Would the parliament want to play an active role in this for the purposes of it being implemented?

They can implement this, it is not a problem, but there is a problem where various politicians don’t want this to be implemented” because they don’t have a voter base abroad.

The court proceedings will continue next week.

 

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