The Mayoral elections of the Dhaka City Corporations in 2020 is the first election in Bangladesh where all the polling centres of the city ran the voting procedures with EVMs (Electronic Voting Machines). EVMs were first introduced in the country back in the 2018 National Parliamentary Elections, but only a few polling centres were provided with the machines.
With the rise of automation in almost every sector, some have argued that it is high time that voting procedures were automated as well. Introducing EVMs in Bangladesh can be considered a positive step in many aspects—it can increase efficiency in the electoral process, reduce paper consumption to a great extent and ensure better transparency in the process. However, this was not quite the case in the two zones of the DCC Mayoral Elections 2020.
Aaqib Md. Shatil, who is currently working as the Programme Co-ordinator at Edward M Kennedy Center in Dhaka, thinks that the voting procedure was easier for the ones who are well educated and got some luck while matching their fingerprints.
"For most of the voters I saw on election day, it was not convenient. Most voters were facing troubles", he said.
Sharing his voting experience, Shatil added, "I am a voter of Ward 14, Dhaka North City Corporation and cast my vote at Booth 4 of Haji Ashraf Ali School Centre. I was able to cast my vote smoothly, but the machine at booth 5, which was right beside mine, was out of order as the confirm button was not working. I saw several voters casting their vote in front of a person who claimed to be a technical officer of the Election Commission. According to him, the machines were having problems."
From his observations, he could identify three very crucial loopholes in the entire system.
Time lapse between identification and voting
The time from verifying the fingerprints to casting the vote is quite a good amount of time to alter the procedure, and once the voters enter the fingerprints, it's their vote, no matter who presses the button.
Meem Arafat Manab, a Computer Science and Engineering graduate from Dhaka University and a voter of ward 16, Dhaka North City Corporation, complained that the machine already had the buttons beside the symbols of the candidates backed by the ruling party pressed when he entered the booth.
Right after that, a woman came inside the booth while he was still trying to figure it out, pressed the black button beside the symbol of the commissioner candidate backed by the same party, and instructed him to press the confirm button.
When he did not do accordingly, she pressed the button herself.
"I have cast my vote three times in in three different elections before, and this was the first time that I could not cast my own vote. I thought that there would not be any fake votes this time for the EVMs, but I was wrong. As my field of study is concerned with such technical aspects, I can say for sure that this machine can be used to tamper votes very easily", he said.
Violation of secrecy
"The machine was showing the symbol on the screen even after I pressed on it, and the EVM remained on till I got out of the booth. Anyone who would enter after I got out could see my vote, even the polling officials, so it is not a secret anymore", said Shatil.
This particular feature was responsible for acts of violence in some of the polling centres where the agents from the ruling party were reportedly attacking voters who cast their votes to candidates of other parties.
Tahmid Hasan, a voter of ward 16 of Dhaka South City Corporation had to face similar experiences. "I was waiting for the symbol to flash out after I pressed the confirm button, but it stayed. When I got out of the booth, I saw a neighbour of mine getting verbally harassed by an agent of the ruling party. Apparently the agent saw my neighbour's vote being cast to the candidate from the opposition wing", he said.
Gross lack of transparency in the system
1% votes of each booth could be cast with the fingerprints of the poll official assigned to that particular booth. This was authorised by Md Alamgir, the Senior Secretary of the EC. The percentage could be increased with the presiding officer of a particular centre asking for special permission from the EC. The EC was supposed to grant the permission after sending a mobile unit to the centre who would report their observations to the EC and ensure that these votes were recorded. However, severe cases of mismanagement regarding the process were reported. This makes the entire process questionable, and there is absolutely no guarantee that these voters could cast their own votes to the candidates of their choices.
Several incidents of fake votes were reported throughout the day of the election. When asked whether he thinks EVMs can ensure better transparency, Shatil said, "I don't think so. Absolutely not. If the process is challenged, there is no way to run a recount."
If the system that is introduced to increase efficiency and transparency deviates from its objective and makes the existing lack of transparency even worse, then this entire process needs a lot of rethinking. Otherwise, the slogan of "Every vote counts" will turn out to be nothing but a joke.