Fafen identifies legal lacunas in bill on EVMs, overseas voting – DAWN.com

ISLAMABAD: With the government’s declared intention to get two key elections reforms bills passed by a joint sitting of the parliament causing worry and resentment among the opposition ranks and civil society, an amalgam of NGOs has pointed out legal inadequacies in the bills and warned against any attempt to amend the Elections Act 2017 without a political consensus.
In a statement issued on Saturday, the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) warned that such an effort would bring into question legitimacy of future elections, and might cause political instability that could potentially reverse the process of democratic consolidation in Pakistan.
“FAFEN sees with concern the imbroglio between the government and the opposition parties as counter narrative of the democratic traditions and practices that had seen the treasury always ensuring a political consensus on particularly constitutional amendments and electoral reforms,” the statement said.
It recalled that despite political fragmentation, political parties had developed a consensus on electoral reforms in 2017 under the aegis of a multi-party parliamentary committee. “The government must uphold such practices as a way forward on critical amendments to the election law, which are being proposed through Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2020 and Elections (Second Amendment) Bill, 2021,” it suggested.
Warns against legislation without consensus
Both these bills were passed by the National Assembly without any debate on June 10.
Although the Elections (Ame­ndment) Bill, 2020 proposes major changes in the process of delimitation, voter registration, priority-listing of women candidates for reserved seats and political party regulations, the public discourse has focused on introduction of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and overseas voting proposed by Elections (Second Amendment) Bill, 2021.
Fafen opined that both the bills merited an in-depth discussion among major political parties for a broad-based consensus as they would have far-reaching consequences on the election system.
It said the government and the political parties should not transfer the responsibility of making political decisions to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) through vague legislative decisions as dragging the ECP into such controversies would undermine the credibility of future elections and their outcomes.
“Unnecessary criticism of the Election Commission for giving independent reviews/opinions under its constitutional mandate as provided under Article 218 (3) is tantamount to disrespecting the constitution. …”
“Of particular concern is government’s aggressive push for the introduction of EVMs and overseas voting without providing adequate legislation catering to the complex questions that are necessary to be addressed before the introduction of any technology at a national scale,” it says.
The proposed amendment allowed the ECP to procure EVMs for casting of votes in general elections without detailed consideration of its legal, regulatory and administrative impacts, Fafen said. The choice of technology and type of machines to be acquired have been left to the ECP but without a qualification that the technology/machines to be procured should fully respond to the provisions of the Elections Act, 2017 related to voting and counting processes.
Fafen said the proposed amendment was also unclear on whether ECP could procure technology/machines that included built-in facility of voter authentication and verification. Technology/machines could compromise the voter secrecy and a voter’s choice may be tracked, it added.
“In addition, the role of EVM vendors before the initiation of any procurement process should strictly be prohibited,” Fafen says, apparently alluding to the mysterious inclusion of a Spanish EVM manufacturing company in the list of ‘special invitees’ called for briefings at a meeting of the Senate standing committee on parliamentary affairs on the recommendation of Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani.
Similarly, Fafen said, the proposed amendment requiring the ECP to enable overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right to vote in their country of residence was also strewn with inadequacies.
It said the amendment reflected the government’s intention that an IT-based system might be developed with the assistance of the National Database and Registration Authority, but it had not provided any corresponding changes to the election law that might be required to enable potentially 9.5 million overseas Pakistanis to vote.
“The amendment does not respond to critical questions such as the responsibility of determination of qualification for overseas voters, particularly Pakistani workers abroad, as provided under Section 94(2) of the Elections Act, 2017; responsibility of their registration as voters and allocation to the constituency i.e. their choice or permanent address on National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP); mechanism for ECP to enforce the legal requirement as provided for under Sections 30 (claims and objections) and Sections 37 (verification); mechanism for provisions of electoral rolls to candidates as provided under Section 41 (2), which only contains the addresses of voters where their vote is registered, but in this case the voters will not be residing on those addresses; provisions pertaining to campaigning and expense limits by candidates when they will have to campaign overseas; verification and authentication of voters on the election day as required under Section 84 (1); timing of counting of overseas votes whether during preparation of provisional results or during consolidation proceedings; voting time for overseas Pakistanis living in different time zones especially if it involved early/advance voting; treatment of list of overseas voters – one list at the constituency level or marked off at the level of electoral rolls provided at the polling stations just as in case of postal ballots issued; and candidates’ oversight over voting by Pakistanis living abroad,” it said.
Meanwhile, Senator Taj Haider, chairman of the Senate’s standing committee on parliamentary affairs which had rejected key amendments proposed in the elections act a day earlier, regretted that ministers had repeated their threat of getting the bills passed in the joint session of the parliament.
Talking to Dawn, he deplored that the Senate, under the cover of Article 70 (3) of the Constitution, had unfairly been made to lose its constitutional right to consider more than 20 bills that had been bulldozed through the National Assembly in half an hour.
The threats of getting the bulldozed bills made into law by once again bulldozing them in the joint session of the parliament would be resisted by members of the parliament, political parties and people of Pakistan, he remarked.
Meanwhile, PPP information secretary Shazia Marri MNA has said that the use of EVMs in coming general elections is a government plan of “blind rigging”.
In a statement she said that the PTI’s federal ministers’ anger towards the ECP was a reflection of the government’s mindset.
Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2021
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