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ISLAMABAD: The Cab-inet members have reportedly raised questions over security of proposed E-voting plan of the government saying that the system can be hacked, well-informed sources told Business Recorder.

Sharing the details, sources said, on April 1, 2021, Secretary, Parliamentary Affairs Division briefed the Cabinet on Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and the right to vote to overseas Pakistanis.

The Cabinet was informed that on right of vote to Overseas Pakistanis Supreme Court's order of August 17, 2018 ECP was directed to conduct pilot project on internet voting (I-Voting) in 2018 Bye-Elections of 35 constituencies. Reports prepared by ECP were laid in NA on January 14, 2019 and in Senate on January 22, 2019. Reports have not yet been discussed, despite Parliamentary Affairs Division's efforts.

Briefing on I-Voting, the cabinet was informed that a number of meetings of Cabinet Sub-Committee under the President of Pakistan were held during which it was decided that the Ministry of Information Technology would expedite the process of selection of consultants for: (i) audit of Nadra system by using filters;(ii) recommending appropriate emerging technologies for EVMs/I-Voting;(iii) provision of funds of Rs 280 million by MoF through ECC; and (iv) Parliamentary Affairs Division to write a letter to the ECP about report-laying in Parliament for their further action. ECP replied its mandate was limited to conduct of pilot projects.

It was noted that appropriate amendment was required in Section 94 for I-voting system for general elections. The proposed draft Bill for reforms in Election Commission, including amendment in Section 94 is pending in National Assembly Standing Committee for Parliamentary Affairs.

The Cabinet was apprised that EVMs Section 103 provides for conduct of pilot projects for utilization of EVM/BVM and laying reports in Parliament. EVMs pilot project report was presented in the National Assembly on January 15, 2018 and in the Senate on January 25, 2018. These reports have not yet been discussed in Parliament despite efforts of Parliamentary Affairs Division.

The Cabinet was updated that since March, 21 three meetings held in the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs on 15th, 24th & -29th March, 2021. Reference was made to the Secretary, National Assembly on March 22, 2021, to expedite the process of Election Amendment Bill, 2020. COMSATS, NIE & ECP demonstrated indigenously developed EVMs based on DRE technology before President Dr. Arif Alvi on March 22, 2021. The President directed for demo of Optical Scanner Technology in the next meeting. A meeting was held under the Adviser to Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs on March 29, 2021. It was decided that coordination meetings would be held regularly on each Monday. All participants agreed on the use of EVMs, however, the members expressed apprehensions about BVMs in view of world experience in Ghana and Kenya. Ministry of IT&T was directed to hire a consulting firm before April 05, 2021.

It was stated (I-Voting, EVMs) a Parliamentary Committee consisting of the leaders of Parliamentary Parties in NA/Senate would be appointed after finalizations of list of party heads in the Senate for consultation on electoral reform (including I-voting and E-voting). Promulgation of Ordinance to amend Section 94 of the Election Act, 2017 would give full mandate to ECP to give voting right to overseas Pakistani. Amendment to Section 103 of Elections Act, 2017 will give full mandate to the ECP. The ECP may keep on conducting pilot projects in various Bye Elections using latest technologies. Demo/presentation by Ministry of Science & Technology was given April 07, 2021 & by Nadra on April 08, 2021. Ministry of IT came up with progress on hiring of consultants on April 05, 2021 and gave a short timeline to the consultants to accomplish their task.

During discussion, some members of the Cabinet raised concerns related to security of the entire process, which could lead to hacking of the system.

The sources said the Prime Minister expressed concern over the lack of tangible progress on the two critical issues, which were imperative to ensure inclusive, free, fair and transparent elections. He underscored that these important initiatives must not be allowed to drift through delays.

Prime Minister Advisor on Parliamentary Affairs, Babar Awan offered to present a complete action plan with timelines in the next cabinet meeting.

After detailed discussion on the presentation by the Secretary, Parliamentary Affairs on Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and the right to vote to overseas Pakistanis the following directives were issued: (i) finalize the type of "stand alone" EVMs required within 30 days: (ii) Minister for Science and Technology, Minister for Railways and Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs in coordination with Election Commission of Pakistan to make amendments in relevant laws to allow use of EVMs and vote for Overseas Pakistanis within 30 days, action to be taken by Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs in consultation with Chairman Senate and Speaker, National Assembly; (iii) finalize details of number of EVMs required within 15 days, action to be taken by Minister for Science and Technology and Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs in coordination with Election Commission of Pakistan; and (iv) work out funding required, arrange funds and start procurement proceedings within six months; action to be taken by Ministries of Parliamentary Affairs, Finance and Law Division.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021