Explainer: Why Conducting General Elections Is A Time-Consuming Process

Explainer: Why Conducting General Elections Is A Time-Consuming Process

Conducting elections, especially general elections, in any country is a structured process. In Pakistan as well it is a long process that includes initiation to completion on overlapping and simultaneous functions elaborated  in the Election Act 2017. The Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform (PCER) of the National Assembly deliberated for three years, as part of electoral reforms, to the enact a consensus legislation titled Election Act 2017 (EA 2017).

Early elections were being stated as a viable option out of the current political and constitutional crisis. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) stated to the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SC) that it needs at least 7 months to hold election. This is being politicized without going into technical merits of the electoral process as detailed in the EA 2017. Let me identify a few critical points that are a mandatory in the  conduct of general election.  

This is what the Constitution and EA 2017 says about the Election Schedule. Article 224 of the Constitution states, “A general election to National Assembly or Provincial Assemblies shall be held within a period of sixty days immediately following the day on which the term of the Assembly is due to expire, unless the Assembly has been dissolved sooner; and the results of the election shall be declared not later than fourteen days before that day.”

Section 57 of the EA-2017, empowers the President of Pakistan to announce the date(s) of the general elections after consultation with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). Within seven days of this announcement, the ECP is bound to announce an election programme and a timeframe, which is to be published in the official gazette and made available on the ECP website. A returning officer (RO) shall, within three days after the publication of the notification, shall issue a public notice of the dates specified by the commission in respect of the constituency or constituencies of which he is the RO; and invite nominations specifying time and place for the filing of the nomination papers. Any voter of a constituency may propose or second the name of a qualified person from that constituency to be a contesting candidate for that constituency. An elaborate scrutiny process is undertaken before the finalization of the nomination, including a legal recourse against any decision of the RO.

Following are few critical steps pre-election that are time consuming:

  1. Delimitation of Constituencies (Chapter 3 of the EA 2017)

The ECP is mandated to delimit constituencies after the completion of every census. The principles of delimitation, as per the EA 2017 Section 20,  require that all constituencies for general seats shall, as far as practicable, be delimited on the basis of the distribution of population, physical features, existing boundaries of administrative units, facilities of communication and public convenience and other cognate factors to ensure homogeneity in the creation of constituencies. To uphold the principle of equality of vote, as far as possible, variation in population of constituencies of an assembly shall not ordinarily exceed plus or minus 10 percent. The commission must record reasons in case it exceeds the 10 percent mark. 

Section 22 of the EA 2017, empowers ‘the commission may, at any time but at least four months before the notification of the Election Programme, of its own motion and for reasons to be recorded, make such amendments, alterations or modifications in the final list of constituencies, as it deems necessary.” It is mandatory for the commission to publish, in the official gazette, a preliminary report and list of constituencies specifying the areas proposed to be included in each constituency. While undertaking delimitation, the commission has to invite representations in respect of the preliminary report within a period of thirty days from the date of publication. 

Why is it required? The comments being circulated are that why the ECP did not undertake delimitation before and is being used as a delaying tactics. The fact remains that post each Census nationwide delimitations are mandatory. 

Why ECP did not initiate delimitation on its own? The last census was held in 2017. Its results are contested by the provinces and to-date its result are officially refereed as provisional result. In line of the Council of Common Interest agreements, the government, on Feb 23, 2022, constituted the National Census Coordination Center (N3C), and announced the first-ever digitized population census. It was stated to be completed in a 30-day period in August 2022. Minister Asad Umar also announced that the results of the Census will be available in December 2022; and to ensure sufficient time to undertake the delimitation of constituencies by the ECP for the next general elections in August 2023.

What is immediate need of delimitation? Even without a new Census, fresh delimitation is required in KP, post-merger of erstwhile FATA. This merger has effect on the total number of seats in the NA. Cumulatively, it will result in reduction in total number of seats from 272 to 266. For any immediate General Election, at minimum, the delimitation is required in KP which will be held on the basis of the census 2017, despite being provisional. 

What are the challenges to delimitation? The challenges to a fair delimitation exercise are (i) availability of revenue and administrative maps which mostly have inconsistencies and are inaccurate; (ii) balancing principle of equality of vote i.e.  relatively equal sizes of the electoral constituencies, by calculating population quota per seat of the National Assembly and Provincial Assemblies as allocated in the constitution for each province; and (iii) integrating varied district-wise average ratio of voting population per provincial constituency. 

In the last delimitation exercise, for general elections in 2018, the principle of equality of vote, which is at the heart of the first-past-the-post system - based on one-person one-vote phenomenon- was violated at some instances. For example Bannu and Tank in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had one National Assembly seat each, despite the fact that Bannu had a population of 1.2 million while Tank only 400,000. This meant that a voter in Bannu had three times more weightage than a voter in Tank. 

The Democracy Reporting International (DRI) reported that the variations in population have significantly increased in 2018. Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) is a non-profit NGO, reported similar non-compliance in at least 81 national and 92 provincial constituencies, including 26 in Balochistan, 22 in KP, 21 in Punjab, and 23 in Sindh

How long does it take to undertake delimitation? On the basis of Census 2017, nationwide delimitation was undertaken pre General Election 2018. Post enactment of EA 2017, the ECP initiated delimitation exercise on 26th December 2017 that took 137 days and was completed by 03.5.2018.  This exercise is dependent on provision of revenue and administrative maps by the provincial authorities; formation, appointment and training of delimitation committee members; undertaking of delimitation exercise and publication of provisional result; representation on published delimitation; disposal of representations and finalization of delimitation. At minimum it takes 30 days to undertake delimitation and 30 days for preparation. Besides that law sets a timeframe of 30 days for public representation and another 30 days after the completion of representation to publish final list of delimited constituencies. These time lines cannot be compromised. So at minimum 120 days are required for any delimitation exercise.

  1. Updation of Electoral Roll

In an electoral cycle,  updating Electoral Roll is a regular and continuous process. The process temporarily stops once the General Elections are announced and resumes once elections have been held. Section 23 of the EA-2017, mandates the ECP for preparation and computerization of the electoral rolls. Electoral rolls are linked to the civil registry maintained by NADRA. Section 25 of EA-2017 obligates NADRA to work on the advice of the ECP to transmit relevant data of every fresh National Identity Card (NIC) issued by it to the Commission for registration of the card-holder as a voter in the electoral roll of the electoral area of his residence. Besides new CNIC data, NADRA is also obliged to transmit to the Commission relevant data of every cancelled or modified NIC as well as information regarding deceased voters. While undertaking the updating exercise the ECP designates Revising Authority, for receiving and deciding claims, objections and applications for correction of the preliminary electoral rolls. The timeline set by law is within 30 days of the publication of preliminary rolls.

Under Section 25 of EA-2017, voters have the choice to register his/her vote in the electoral area of his/her permanent or temporary address. Voters can indicate this option at the time of the application for issuance of NIC and during ER updation/display period.

Why is it important? In GE 2018, the number of registered voters increased from 86 million to 105.95 million. While undertaking that exercise, the computerized electoral roll were prepared and displayed at 14,487 display centers nationwide. In GE 2018 voter base increased approximately by 8.5m in electoral roll, Given the bulging youth population, especially 23% between 19-23 years,  the electoral rolls will need to be updated for upcoming elections where number of youth voters will be substantial. The existing gender gap among voters also rests at about 10m – missing women voters - that needs to be bridged. Therefore updation of electoral roll is important to increase the eligible voter base. Voter registration remains an individual responsibility as an eligible CNIC holder has to apply to the ECP to be added to the electoral roll. This means the ECP has to appoint of revision authorities; set a timeframe for application to be a voter and/or change of vote from one constituency to another; a reasonable time frame to display updated electoral rolls nationwide; and public information to this effect.

  1. Political Parties – Membership & Party Financing 

In GE 2018, there were 121 registered political parties with 11,855 candidates i.e. 3459 for NA and 8396 for PAs, of which 55% were independently contesting candidates

Section 202 of EA-2017 sets out that a political party, within thirty days of its formation, must apply to the ECP for enlistment. The law elaborates on the documentation to be provided by the political party to the ECP for enlistment, including copy of the constitution; copy of consolidated statement of its accounts (section 210); list of at least two thousand members with their signatures or thumb impressions along with copies of their NIC; proof of deposit of two hundred thousand rupees in favor of the Commission in the Government Treasury as enlistment fee and linked certification required under section 209. Post compliance, a political party stands enlisted with the ECP and can participate in elections. 

Section 210 refers to “ Information about the sources of funds.—(1) A political party shall, in such manner as may be prescribed, submit to the Commission within sixty days from the close of a financial year, a consolidated statement of its accounts audited by a Chartered Accountant on Form D containing (a) annual income & expense; (b)source of its funds; and (c) assets and liabilities. The statement shall be accompanied by the report of the Chartered Accountant with regard to the audit of the accounts of the political party and a certificate signed by the office bearer authorized by the political head stating that (a)  no funds from any source prohibited under this Act were received by the political party; and (b)  the statement contains an accurate financial position of the political party. 

What are the challenges? The ECP lacks institutional strength and technical mechanism to authenticate and verify names and their CNIC, listed as party members; and cross check for duplication of membership with another political party. A political party’s funding is critical for enlistment which is reduced to availability of Audited Accounts Statement by a firm by the political party.  The annual financial statements are also not regularly submitted by the political parties which becomes an issue at the time of GE. The current foreign funding case against PTI is an example. Based on the foreign funding complaints and ongoing cases, it will be prudent to have a solution to prescreen the party finances for all political parties. Furthermore, the ECP also does not have means to verify if a political party promotes violence; and/or a violent group seeks fresh enlistment under new name. This needs setting up of a mechanism among financial gate keepers linked with the ECP.

  1. Appointment of DROs, ROs and AROs & Polling Staff and their training 

District Returning Officers (DROs) are appointed for each district to perform electoral and other duties as assigned by the ECP. Assistant Returning Officers (AROs) are appointed to assist DROs at district level. Returning Officers (ROs) are appointed at constituency level for the conduct of election. The Act provides for appointment of DROs, ROs, AROs & polling staff at least 60 days prior to the announcement of election programme. As per law, the preference for these appointments is from amongst its own officers subject to availability; and to manage shortage of staff from the pool of government officers. 

The ECP, in GE-2018, continued to engage judicial officials as ROs and DROs. In GE 2018, 859 ROs, 131 DROs, 1,752 ARO and 811,491 Polling staff (Presiding Officer, Assistant Presiding officer & polling staff) were appointed which was largest deployment. The ECP had 100 Lead Trainers and over 2,600 Master Trainers for GE-2018. A cascade training was undertaken spread over 4 months that included simulations and training materials.

What are challenges? ROs/ DROs not having prior experience in conduct of general elections. ROs continue to perform election duties concurrently with judicial responsibilities and both suffer. In GE 2018 each constituency had 2 ROs that meant the Presiding Officer had to be answerable to at least two independent ROs as designated for NA and PA resulting in delays in election results. There is no pool of government staff for election duties. Hence each time new lists are prepared. It takes time to get fresh lists & finalize the polling staff and after that ROs can assign election duties. In GE 2018, due to weak coordination one person received at least 2 conflicting reporting orders. Mostly election duties are not preferred by the government servants. IN GE 2018, training for all was spread over 4 months and once can only be attend training post appointments by RO..

  1. Polling Station, Personnel & Security

The ECP, in pursuance of section 59 of EA-2017, is mandated to, within one week after appointment of ROs, provide the RO a list of proposed polling stations for respective constituency indicating the electoral areas assigned to each polling station and publish the list on its website. In GE 2018, a total of 811,491 polling staff were engaged to perform duties at 85,317 polling stations that expanded in 242,088 booths. Radius of a polling station is set at a KM. in GE 2018, the ECP declared 17,007 of 85,317 polling stations as “sensitive” due to security concerns. 370,000 army and 450,00 police personnel were engaged for security. CCTVs were also installed at these stations. Polling stations were also geo-tagged. 

What are the challenges? The number of polling stations are expected to increase to at least to 100,000 with approximately 300,000 polling booths.  Legally a polling station cant be for more than 1,200 voters and not more than 300 voters per booth. In GE 2018, According to the EU observation report 50.59% polling station were in non-compliance. Identification and availability of the suitable government buildings for polling stations that have adequate & appropriate facilities (light, toilet, ventilation, ramp, etc.) is critical. This is more problematic in rural and far flung areas. The ECP has no means to identify building and is dependent upon provincial authorities to identify and provide the list of buildings. These buildings then needs to be on GIS -geo tagged databank of polling stations. This is a time consuming exercise along with identification of sensitive polling station which is done in collaboration with provincial authorities down to district administration & police.. Given the experience of by-polls especial NA 75-Daska this will need in-depth review.

  1. Printing, distribution of Ballot Papers & procurement of Election materials

The ECP determines constituency-wise requirement of ballot papers as per the electoral roll and down to its requirement for each polling stations. The Ballot is printed on a special water mark paper which is specially procured. The ballot can only be printed at secure public press. The ECP also has to ensure adequate arrangements for the security of the presses during printing of the ballot papers and for safe custody of the printed ballot papers till delivery to ROs. In GE 2018, approximately 200m ballot were printed by 3 printing presses. Its delivery to RO and onwards to the polling staff is also done under certain level of security.

A set of election materials is to be provided at each polling booth. There are 15 essential items comprising plastic seals, tamper evident and cloth bags, stamp pads, brass seals, transparent ballot boxes, indelible ink, envelopes, stationary, etc.  

What are challenge? Printing has to be in secure public press and GE 2018 experience informed that the machinery installed in the printing presses was outdated and obsolete. Procurement of water mark ballot paper consumed substantial time. Procurement of essential election item is a huge tender that at times include international procurement which has its own time lines..