Letter To The Pakistani Voter

Interference by foreign governments is a persistent threat to the integrity of elections

Letter To The Pakistani Voter

Dear voter,

The new year 2024 is around the corner and what a year it is going to be for you. And I don’t envy you for that.

There will be elections in several key countries in 2024. First, the Election Commission of Pakistan has announced that the general elections will be held on February 8, 2024. Then among many others, there will be elections in Bangladesh, India, Russia, Ukraine, possibly in Israel, the UK, and Canada, and finally the mother of all elections, the Presidential and Congressional elections in the US in November.

As a voter, you are one of the most critical pillars in the democratic process of electing your government and leaders. Whether democracy is sustained or not in your country pretty much depends on you. The decision you make at the polls, first by exercising your sacred right to vote and then voting thoughtfully, will determine the quality of life you and your fellow countrymen will enjoy for the years to come. In some cases, it may even be a deciding factor in the continuation of war or the possibility of peace in your area.

A bad decision on your part or a rigged election may result in a ‘democratically elected’ dictator, a fascist, corrupt, or incompetent government, or a president of the most powerful country in the world who may be technically senile, or worse, who may need a 4-year pass from jail to perform his duties - constitutional or otherwise.

So, the stakes are high and naturally, you would want to use your vote with utmost care. However, there are forces that will heavily influence your decision-making process without sometimes you even realizing it. These forces are commonly known as campaign teams, political action committees, special interest groups, millionaires and billionaires, foreign governments, and the 16-year-old in the basement of his parent's home with a laptop and internet connection. They will throw at you everything from the 21st-century election playbook including but not limited to mudslinging, misinformation, disinformation, fake news, deep fakes, AI-generated fake videos, threats, intimidation, and briberies.

In developing countries, the old election rigging tricks are still widespread. These include using multiple fake IDs to register as a voter, stuffing the ballot boxes with pre-marked ballots for the favoured candidate, physically stopping certain groups of voters from voting, or sending them to the wrong polling stations, using bribery and threats to voters, and making sure they vote in a certain way under the watchful eyes of campaign workers inside the polling stations.

In the US and other Western countries, mudslinging and spreading of misleading news through TV advertisements and fake news through social media, podcasts, and websites has been prevalent for the last couple of decades. For the voters, it will be difficult to decide what to believe or not, resulting in a wrong decision at the polls. Thanks to advances in technology this is going to only intensify in 2024 and beyond.

In the US, money plays a key role in elections. Billionaires, millionaires, and special interest groups contribute tons of money to the campaigns of their favoured candidates with the expectation of influencing policy decisions in their interest once their candidate is in office. By an analysis of the Federal Election Filings, $14.4 billion was spent in the 2020 elections, more than doubling the total cost of the previous record-setting 2016 presidential election cycle. The extraordinary spending figures make the 2020 election the most expensive of all time by a large margin. It is anybody’s guess how much will be spent in 2024.

The money does help, although not always. In the 2020 election, for example, Democrats spent $8.4 billion, compared to $5.3 billion for Republicans. This advantage of money helped the Democrats retain their control of Congress and flipped the Senate and presidency from Republicans. Of course, other factors also contribute to the outcome of an election. Having enough cash helps candidates employ additional campaign strategies, and cover election expenses, including paying campaign workers, not all of whom are volunteers.

Interference by foreign governments is a persistent threat to the integrity of elections. According to Dov H Levin's 2020 book Meddling in the Ballot Box, the United States has intervened in the largest number of foreign elections followed by the Soviet Union or Russia. Also, China has been accused of interfering in Taiwan’s election using false information on political issues.

However, the big powers were not known to interfere in each other’s elections. This changed when Russia was accused of interfering in the 2016 US presidential election in which Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump by a narrow margin. This accusation and the investigation that followed left a cloud over Donald Trump’s presidency throughout its duration.

Can election manipulation be stopped by implementing new laws? There already are election-specific laws, in addition to general laws, to prevent election fraud however, their enforcement is questionable in many jurisdictions. Any intervention by the authorities during the electoral process may be seen as election interference and accusations of their partiality for or against specific candidates or parties.

Most frauds are detected and proved well after the elections are over and the results are declared final. At that time, it is very rare to change the outcome significantly. The courts are not amenable to declaring the entire election null and void even if there is widespread election wrongdoings. At best a few seats may change hands without significantly changing the outcome.

Even if the overall election outcome is not affected, the revelation of fraud can reduce voters' confidence in the electoral process. They feel that their vote is not worth anything and hence diminishes their confidence in the democratic system.

Dear voter, your vote is sacred. Many people have lost their lives for others to win this fundamental right. Don’t be discouraged. Use your vote thoughtfully. Fight back against election manipulation by learning about the candidates, their character, and their past. Instead of following he said, she said gossip and innuendos do your own research. In the end, follow your heart. Good luck!

The writer is a retired engineer based in Canada, and has a keen interest in Pakistan’s political affairs. He can be reached at: zahid110@gmail.com