Can technology ensure free and fair elections in Pakistan?

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January 5, 2019
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Election rigging is a subject, Pakistanis are really well educated on. We have been questioning the authenticity of every election since Ayub Khan defeated the combined opposition party in 1965.

It is a custom in Pakistan for the losing party to claim that elections were rigged. You just can’t have an election without such claims. The incumbent government today is listening to the same chants that it shouted back in 2013.

How about the general elections of 1977, when PPP was accused of rigging the elections. Polling was blocked, boxes were changed and offices were stormed. It was indeed rigged. Yet, the opposition expecting resignation and apology for events got a martial law.

I believe that there is always a substance to these claims. Many would agree that yes every election in Pakistan has been rigged. But the problem is not exclusive to Pakistan.

Last Sunday, elections happened in Bangladesh. It wasn’t long before the opposition started calling the elections rigged. They claimed that the ruling party was caught during ballot-stuffing. Human rights watch has expressed concerns over the credibility of the elections. But PM Sheikh Hasina has rejected the claims and has called the elections free and fair.

To give you an idea, PM Hasina’s Awami League won 288 out 300 seats, that’s 96% of all the seats. A bit suspicious? This has created a sentiment that Bangladesh is now a 1 party dictatorship.

Then there are other countries like Afghanistan, where in some places, there were more voters than votes and some places there were more votes than voters. In Haiti, marked ballot papers have been spotted on streets. So every country has this problem.

Where is modern technology?

In America, there are several types of polling stations. These range from ballot papers based to touch screens where the voter only taps and vote is casted. So digitization is in process. Not all polling stations have completely digitized but they are on their way.

Pakistan has also started to adopt modern technology. 2018 should have been the first election when we used digital means to transmit the results, but the failure of the famous result transmitting system (RTS) has left a sour taste.
Truth is that elections haven’t experienced the modern tech revolution yet. We still have centuries old systems in place. Ballot paper voting is still the default voting scheme for many countries.

Yes, it is hard to believe that in a world where we can write on an iPad with a pencil, the ballot paper exists. It is also hard to believe that we still have to go to the station, stand in line for hours only to cast a vote. But the transition is in motion and it will take some time before we get there.

Why things haven’t changed?

One of the biggest problems in digitizing the voting process is secure. No matter how safe systems get, they are vulnerable to attacks and hacks. Vague? Let’s look at the 2016 American elections.

“When you try to sow the seeds of doubt in people’s minds about the legitimacy of our election, that undermines our democracy,”

That’s the former US president Barack Obama before the 2016 elections.

We now know how Russians heavily influenced the elections of 2016. It has now been confirmed that the Russian government tried to damage Hilary Clinton’s campaign. They had even managed to get access to election systems of some 18 to 21 states!

So the problem isn’t voting digitally or voting from your home. The problem is security. The problem is how can we ensure that the process will not be influenced. Can we design a system that can’t be hacked? The task looks easier said than done. Facebook has over 30,000 people in its cybersecurity department and yet it was hacked multiple times in 2018.

Elections take place after several years and involve the entire country voting. So to have a service that gets compromised would mean re-election which not only will be really expensive but also shatter the trust of voters. Who knows if the hackers hack again? It is extremely difficult to make something that can not be hacked. Despite all the talent and money big companies like Microsoft, Apple and Facebook have, they still witness hacks.

The other problem is that technology in its current state is simply not good enough. Biometric voting is a prime example. It looks simple to have a fingerprint system but it is extremely difficult to implement one. In fact in Venezuela 11% voters could not have their fingerprints identified. Pakistan faced a similar problem. While the system was developed, it was still unable to identify all voters and had a similar failure rate to Venezuela. Now 53 million votes were counted in the 2018 election. A 10% failure rate would mean 5.3 million votes would be unidentifiable. That is huge! That is enough to swing an election in another party’s favor.

Rigging will also get its Tech revolution

While we are talking about how voting will become more secure and more feasible we need to consider the fact that people will use modern technology in different ways to influence the process as well. Hacking will get more advanced, new techniques will be adopted to combat it and it will go in circles for some time. But what about hacking people?

We all know the famous Cambridge Analytica scandal. While Russians went for the election systems, Cambridge Analytica went for the people. Cambridge Analytica would analyze the person and show them content so as to change their perception. It was revealed by Facebook that over 87 million of its users had been affected by Cambridge Analytica’s practices.

The beauty about what Cambridge Analytica did was that they did not tamper the election process, they did not rig the system, they rigged the people. Does that classify as rigging? Obviously.

Take Brexit. While people enthusiastically voted for Brexit, it is possible that their decision was influenced. After all Cambridge Analytica also participated in this vote as well. This would also explain why there is a sentiment to have a Brexit vote again.

So we can’t have a free and fair election?

The hard truth is that it is extremely difficult to have an election free from discrepancies. While the classical methods are still popular we know that they are simply not adequate for the huge masses. Classical voting systems have been manipulated in many ways and new ways are discovered with every election. We know about the practices that we caught, but what about those that have not been caught yet? Apart from that, classical methods are just not feasible. As the population grows how will the system scale? It is bound to get cumbersome and fatiguing to the point that people might not cast their vote because it takes a lot of time.

While the tech evolves, it has yet to make a major impact in the election arena. It posses exciting opportunities but with equally dangerous risks. The thing that is more frightening is that classical system or not, it has already started to have an impact on the process.

A big part about rigging is the perception created by political figures. Imagine if the fingerprint identification was used in the 2018 elections with the same 10% failure rate. There is a possibility that it would recognize everyone but the losing party would take it to the streets protesting how their votes were not counted. They would create the perception that they lost because the system was “rigged”.

The perception is a difficult thing to control. Maybe sometime in the future, we are able to make a system that can not be hacked, a system that is efficient and one that every party likes. But what about manipulating people? That is something that is extremely difficult to control, there are just too many variables and players. Maybe we might have to accept that aspect just like we have accepted the “plate biryani” vote.

So, is there any chance that we might have a free and fair election in the future? At the moment no, because at the moment, we are in the transition period. That does not mean that we can’t have a foolproof system. Researchers are already working on using blockchain for elections. This will improve the security element. At the moment we have nothing concrete except hope. So let’s hope that we get these advanced systems as soon as possible.

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