EVMs and a mind-reading election commissioner
Did you know that mind-reading was an essential trait for the job of an election commissioner? I did not. But, now we know it since one of our election commissioners, Md Alamgir, has said that those who are opposing the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the upcoming general election do have faith in the EVMs in their hearts. He has also claimed that 120 million voters in the country have faith in the EVMs. Who, other than a mind reader or an expert in public psychology, can be so certain that the opponents of EVMs, in fact, are not telling the truth, or at the least not revealing what they really think or believe?
Election Commissioner Alamgir has experience in election management since the introduction of EVMs, the most controversial voting tool in the country, as he worked at the Election Commission (EC) on deputation from the civil service. He first came into the media limelight in 2020, when he, as the secretary at the Election Commission, set a new precedent by telling journalists that returning officers are not accountable to any individual election commissioner and any information sought regarding the polls must be passed through the EC Secretariat. His comments were in response to the late Election Commissioner Mahbub Talukdar's statement on non-compliance of his instructions by the returning officers in two city corporation polls in Dhaka regarding the violation of the electoral code of conduct by candidates. In a way, he is the most experienced election manager among his fellow commissioners. There's little doubt that the introduction of the EVMs in the 2018 election, albeit on a limited scale, was a whimsical decision and lacked consensus among the contesting parties.
In addition to the usual arguments made by the chief election commissioner (CEC) and other members of the EC about the so-called benefits of EVMs, Md Alamgir said those who wrote against the use of EVMs had not voted using the EVMs, never seen it, and were unwilling to hear about it. He asked whether any of those voters who had used the EVMs had ever written any column in a newspaper. No wonder, the contagion effect of the government's search for helpful columnists has reached the EC. Md Alamgir has also forgotten that when he was working as an EC secretary, voters did not have to go to the polling centres as ballot boxes were allegedly stuffed the night before with some help from the bureaucracy and law enforcement forces.
Election Commissioner Alamgir repeated the EC's favourite mantra: "Wherever voting took place using EVMs, there was no fighting, bloodshed, rigging and not even a single complaint." Perhaps they have not noticed the reported incident of EVM snatching in Patuakhali during the union parishad (UP) elections held in November 2021. According to media reports, eight EVMs were snatched away from the Kazirkanda Government Primary School polling centre in Panpatti Union under Galachipa upazila by the supporters of the losing candidates. If it can happen in the UP elections, how can one rule out the possibility of the recurrence of this incident in the most important electoral contest in the country – the parliamentary election?
Md Alamgir also seems to have forgotten that the losing mayoral candidate of Cumilla City Corporation, Monirul Haque Sakku, lodged a case with the election tribunal alleging rigging in vote-counting where EVMs were the only tool used for voting. Observers will be watching the case with keen interest as it is common knowledge that in absence of a paper trail, there's no way to verify the results of EVMs. Election Commissioner Alamgir, however, deserves our praise for his admission that after talking with experts, the EC has found that adding paper trail is not possible at this moment.
In addition, a few other things have proven that EVMs are not the answer for restoring the Election Commission's credibility and its ability to conduct a fair election. Among those are the lack of sufficient testing of the machines, because wherever they have been used, the polling there has been mired in controversy, either due to boycott by the presumed lead contending party, or low voter turnout, or intimidating environment and takeover of the voting booths by the ruling party men, or problems with matching fingerprints, or the polling officials' discretionary power to cast vote on someone's behalf.
Now it has emerged that the EC has undertaken two very ambitious projects for conducting polling by EVMs: one is the procurement of 200,000 new EVMs, which would cost at least Tk 6,000 crore, and the other is to get fresh fingerprints of all the voters. The total cost for procuring EVMs and their accessories, storage and security will be Tk 8,711 crore. Based on the budget allocation for the 2018 election (except the cost for the sudden addition of a few thousand EVMs), the cost for the EVMs in the coming election is equivalent to the cost of holding at least 10 national elections using the traditional paper ballots.
The EC's plan for collecting fresh fingerprints of all the voters within the next 15 months also seems to be a tall order. The digitisation process of the voter ID cards, otherwise known as national ID cards, has already caused huge problems and sufferings for the citizens due to silly mistakes, like misspelling of names, addresses, non-inclusion of postal codes, wrong inputs about dates of birth, etc. Those mistakes are largely the result of inefficiencies of the EC Secretariat and its field staff. When the EC is still struggling with the backlog of millions of faulty ID cards, why would anyone believe that it is capable of making a new fingerprint database of 120 million voters, the number noted by Md Alamgir?
In the absence of a national consensus, and being the preferred choice of the ruling party, any attempt for a forced introduction of the EVMs will only increase suspicion about the EC's intent among both the voters and the parties vying for power. The alleged alterations by the EC of the opinion of some political parties on EVM use to show a higher number in favour has already raised doubts about their intent. The EC should not waste any more time, energy and resources over the EVM fantasy. Instead, the commission would be wiser to concentrate on building consensus for a fair and participatory election, and prepare accordingly.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist and writes from London, UK. His Twitter handle is @ahmedka1