All stakeholders except PTI have expressed apprehensions over the use of NADRA’s software to extend voting rights to overseas Pakistanis in the upcoming elections. All of them, however, agree that overseas Pakistanis have a fundamental right to cast their votes.
Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar made it clear that the apex court would not allow the election process to be diluted and if there was even an iota of doubt over the use of the NADRA database, the court would not use this method.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court arranged a briefing by NADRA, in which a number of parliamentarians were invited to examine the procedure to enable overseas Pakistanis to cast votes in the forthcoming elections via the internet. It was a unique briefing as media persons and cameras were allowed to cover it at the SC’s auditorium hall. A three-judge bench of the apex court, headed by the CJP himself, also attended the briefing.
NADRA Chairman Usman Mobeen had already briefed the bench last week. According to the NADRA chairman, if a voter was eligible, the system will use two verification questions from the database to confirm the voter’s identity. Subsequently, the system will send a notification to the voter’s registered email address confirming his or her registration as an overseas voter. The system would also delist overseas voters from local voter lists.
Before the election, the system will send a voter pass to voters on their registered email addresses. On the day of the election, voters will log in to the website using their accounts. Using voter passes, voters will select their National Assembly and provincial assembly constituencies and cast their votes for candidates of their choice.
Once the voting time is over, the Election Commission of Pakistan will enable the reporting portal of the Online Voting System. Returning officers will be able to view and print results of the Online Voting System for their constituencies.
The NADRA chairman told the bench that as many as eight million overseas Pakistanis might benefit through this system, which has a total cost of Rs150 million.The bench observed that this amount was negligible when seen in the light of ensuring voting rights for overseas Pakistanis.
The chief justice asked parliamentarians why legislation on election reforms was being delayed. He said that right to vote was a fundamental right of overseas Pakistanis, guaranteed by the Constitution. “I don’t think parliament will go against the Constitution”, he said. After the briefing, the bench solicited feedback from everyone, including IT experts and parliamentarians.
Interestingly, other than PTI, no political party expressed apprehensions about allowing overseas Pakistanis the right of vote in the next election.
The most important feedback was given by a representative of NUST. Taha Ali, who examined such experiments in countries such as the US, Australia, and Norway, maintained that NADRA’s software had been discredited. Ali contended that all foreign countries had given up on this voting system because it could easily be hacked. “You are pessimistic,” Justice Umar Ata Bandial jokingly said.
“No sir, I am realistic,” Ali responded.
Another IT expert, Umar, also expressed similar fears.
Mushahid Hussain, a PML-N senator, referred to a statement by an American legislator before Congress, saying that there were concerns that voters’ data could be manipulated if this method was used.
“Please do not use this method in the next elections…they will be the most charged elections”.
PPP’s Naveed Qamar also expressed similar views before the bench.
Senator Usman Kakar requested the bench to first focus on persons deprived of the right to vote, especially women, because of the lack of National Identity Cards (NICs). The senator also told the bench that 70 per cent of the overseas Pakistanis worked in the Gulf countries and most of them did not have access to the internet. How could secrecy be maintained in such a situation, Kakar asked. ECP Secretary Babar Yaqoob and Attorney-General for Pakistan Ashtar Ausaf Ali also agreed with apprehensions regarding secrecy of voters. Both of them did not fully endorse this system.
However, PTI’s lawyer Anwar Mansoor Khan and other parliamentarians such as Shafqat Mahmood and Arif Alvi supported NADRA’s efforts to ensure the right of vote to overseas Pakistanis. The case was later adjourned till next week.