Controversies in electoral history of Pakistan are as old as inception of democracy in this country. Each and every elected government has been accused of rigging and engineering bogus votes. Even the campaign to topple Pakistan’s first elected Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto initiated by political and religious parties was on the grounds of rigging, which eventually turned into a Martial Law.

Elections in 2013 led to a massive campaign against the government, resulting in a lockdown of the capital and multiple sit-ins. These activities cost country economic loss of around $500 billion and projected a negative image of country. If only electoral reforms were in place, this wouldn’t have happened.

It is very unfortunate that after 70 years of independence we are still not able to introduce reforms in our electoral system while our neighbour India is miles ahead of us. All successive governments failed and lacked will to make electoral process transparent.

Recently the nation were shown the beam of hope with introduction of Biometric Verification Machines (BVM) in elections and the bye elections in NA-120 served as launch pad. Just when everyone is appreciating the induction of BVM as a breakthrough step towards transparent electoral system in Pakistan, vested interest in ECP and status quo has other plans.

After announcing successful implementation of BVM in NA-120, secretary ECP took a 180 degree U-turn in a press conference later, raising questions on the seriousness of ECP for the induction of BVM in general elections. It seems like ECP has bowed down to status quo and hinder the progress.

ECP carried out a pilot biometric voter verification exercise in NA-120 in 39 polling stations, where 88% of the voters were verified with their live fingerprints matched with the ones stored in the NADRA database, while the remaining 12% voters fingerprints could not be verified through these machines. The ECP clarified that for these 12% voters their digital photographs along with their fingerprints were captured and stored for audit at a later time.

The much hyped biometric verification exercise has been termed as a failure by the ECP who has concluded that this system would not be used in the upcoming 2018 general elections. There is no doubt that such a system if used 100% accurately in the general elections would benefit the country greatly and hence the conclusion that this system will not be used seems premature. Have we established that this 88% cannot be further improved? Let’s assume for arguments sake that this 88% cannot be improved (due to the quality of the finger prints etc.) , in that assumption ; are 12% unverified voters not better than 100% unverified voters, as is the case in the current status quo system?

Since this was a pilot it had no consequence on the voting results as the voting was carried out manually by the polling officers who verified the voter as per the electoral rolls, which was tallied with the ID card presented by each voter. The voter’s CNIC number and name was written on the counterfoil along with his thumb impression by using a normal ink pad. After which the ballot paper was issued to the voter.

This means that 100% voter verification was manual and dependent on the efficiency/honesty of the Assistant Presiding/Polling officers with no guarantees of a verifiable audit. We know from the 2013 experience that the fingerprints on the counterfoils cannot be verified with NADRA’s database as seen in the 2013 elections. In the absence of digital photographs the second biometric identifier is also not available for audit. It is pertinent to note that NADRA uses both fingerprints and photographs for its authentication system.

In an actual voting scenario the polling officer will have to manually verify 12% of the total voters as opposed to 100 % if BVM’s are used, however he would be required to enroll the voters live fingerprint and capture his or her photograph. This process is less time consuming as no writing of CNIC or name is required, which is automatically done.

In case of a close contest all controversies can easily be solved by doing a facial recognition of the 12% unverified voters, due to the fact that digital photographs will now be available. This would save the nation from long drawn out legal battles and allow stability in governance.

It is therefore extremely strange that ECP would prefer to maintain a status quo, year in and year out, by opting to manually verify 100% voters as opposed to verifying 12% voters, despite the fact that every election ends with a hue and cry that the election was rigged.