The Election Commission touted the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) as a foolproof alternative to the traditional method of ballot paper, but that too fell prey to sweeping abuse yesterday.
Some 5,045 EVMs were deployed in 845 polling centres in six constituencies -- Dhaka-6 and -13, Chattogram 9, Rangpur 3, Khulna 2 and Satkhira 2 -- and the common complaint of voters was that their ballots were cast by someone else in their presence.
This was feared by majority of the registered parties, including the BNP and its allies, who said the deployment of the instrument would facilitate “the government's plan for election engineering”.
Another problem with the new voting method used during the 11th general elections was that polling was halted for several hours at many booths for malfunctioning units.
In theory, the EVMs would be activated by the voter's smart card, voter number or national identification number.
The voter would then have to use his/her fingerprint for verification purpose and then proceed to cast vote on the balloting unit, which would be kept in a separate room.
As a result, the voting process would be immune to rigging. When the system worked as it was supposed to, the voting experience was quick and fuss-free, many said.
But what transpired for the most part yesterday was far from it: party activists preyed on voters, most of whom were unfamiliar with the workings of the EVM.
Take the case of Rahima Begum, a resident of CRB area under Kotwali Thana of Chattogram. She was eagerly looking forward to voting on the EVM, but her curiosity turned to despair at the polling booth.
A lady offered to guide her through the use of EVM. “She took my fingerprint and asked me to leave,” the 45-year-old told The Daily Star.
She was told her voting was completed, much to her bewilderment. “When I tried to know on which symbol the vote was cast, they simply told me to leave,” Rahima added.
Similar accounts were heard from Khulna-2 constituency, particularly from female voters.
An excited Shelly Begum arrived to cast her vote at Sher-e-Bangla Primary School but a young lady pressed the button to cast the vote on the EVM -- before Shelly could do it herself.
“I could not cast my vote because of that lady,” said an annoyed Shelly.
Sarmin Sultana had a similar experience when she went to vote around 1:00pm. Two women of Awami League tried to enter the voting room with her to guide her through the process.
But when she declined their help, they dragged her out of the centre.
When it was not the case of unwitting voters being exploited, it was the party activists themselves who proceeded to cast votes for absentee voters on the EVM with the help of presiding officers.
Our correspondent visited Wari Girls' Government Primary School at about 2:20pm and saw a young man giving voting numbers to the polling officer, who was inputting the numbers on the EVM one by one.
The voters' profiles were flashing on the screen -- and none of the photos that came up matched with the faces nearby. The young man was using his fingerprint to unlock the voting page for the numbers and understandably they would not match.
Then another man swooped in and used his fingerprint, which unlocked the voting page. Soon after, the correspondent saw that the screen was flashing the message: 'Your voting has been completed'.
When the fingerprints do not match on the EVM, the assistant presiding officers have the authority to unlock the system for 25 percent of the cases.
The correspondent then went to Sher-e-Bangla Balika Mahavidyalaya next, where he saw a similar sight.
In fact, it was more pronounced here: almost all the polling booths had someone else casting votes on behalf of others.
The correspondent approached the presiding officer Shahidur Rahman Khan in his cabin and informed him of the incidents. “I do not know anything of this nature,” he said.
Similar scenes of the system being gamed were seen at the voting centres of Dhaka-6.
At about 3:00pm at Kamrunnesa Government Girls High School, a lady was complaining at the top of her voice that her vote had already been cast. Agitated, she went to the presiding officer to inform of the foul play, but it came to no use.
The correspondent then went up to the polling officer, who seemed resigned to what was unfolding at venue. “There is nothing I can do about it,” he said, requesting anonymity.
Another correspondent arrived at the Sutrapur Community Centre 10 minutes before polls closed and found the venue buzzing with people.
Security forces came in and asked everyone except the polling agents to leave. A swarm of people rushed to leave the venue, and all were wearing badges of the Grand Alliance.
Asked about the large presence of people with no EC passes, the polling agent Fahad said: “It's because the EVM is complicated to use -- we had volunteers to guide them through the process.”
Over at Dhaka-13, voting was paused at six booths in five centres for two to six hours for malfunctioning EVMs. Those who arrived in that time frame had to leave without voting.
The Daily Star visited 17 centres in the constituency and found several machines were unable to read fingerprints.
At Mohammadpur Girls High School, a man complained that polling agents wearing 'Boat' badges were shadowing voters to the balloting room and intimidating them to cast their vote for Awami League.
Awami League candidate Sadek Khan was contesting against BNP's Abdus Salam and Jatiya Party's Shafiqul Islam for the seat.
Voting was still going on at the venue at around 4:15pm.
The assistant presiding officer was seen helping five youths unlock the voting system with his fingerprint. As a photographer tried to take a picture, a youth wearing the 'Boat' badge threatened her and told her to leave.
Over at Satkhira-2, EVMs in two booths of Mridanga and Rajnagar centres were not functioning from the onset. The devices were flown in by helicopter to Dhaka for repair. They were not returned to booths until 3:00pm, our correspondent reported.
A similar incident took place at Nurpur Government Primary School of Rangpur-3 constituency. After being repaired in Dhaka, the EVM was flown in to the venue at about 4:00pm, when voting started again and went on until 6:00pm.
But it was not all bad news: many voters quite enjoyed casting their votes with the EVM.
“It took all of three minutes to cast my vote,” said Mohammad Sohel, a 30-year-old voter after casting his vote at Suritola Model Government Primary School.
Just two buttons need to be pressed to cast one's vote, said Osama Rahman, a young voter.
“It's just so easy to use,” he added.
Delwar Hossain Khokon, a 40-year-old, waxed lyrical about the system after casting his vote at Banglabazar Government Primary School.
“It is a good system if there are no anomalies in voting,” he said.