Amid reservations of opposition political parties and experts and confusion among many voters, the Election Commission is all set to hold its first major all-EVM polls.
The two Dhaka city corporations go to polls on February 1.
The BNP and Communist Party of Bangladesh apprehend that electronic voting machines (EVMs) may be used for manipulating the polls and snatching people’s right to vote.
BNP leaders on several occasions even termed the EVM “a tool for robbing votes”.
The ruling Awami League is, however, backing the EC.
Many experts expressed concern that there could be room for irregularities in the polls using EVMs.
“The decision to use EVMs should have been taken on consensus of all parties. But that did not happen,” said former caretaker government adviser Hafizuddin Khan.
“We have fears of irregularities as it [EVM] does not have Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail [VVPAT, a printed receipt-like document that tells voters the vote has been cast] and election officials have overriding powers in case a voter’s fingerprint could not be matched with the database,” he said.
When asked why they have not kept the paper trail system in the EVMs, Brig Gen Mohammad Sidul Islam of NID Wing of the EC said, “We have seen that paper trail system creates some technical issues and it sometimes takes a lot of time to print. All these cause sudden closure of the voting.”
EC insiders said the VVPAT was not included in the EVMs defying the advice of Prof Jamilur Reza Choudhury, who led the technical committee formed by the commission.
Asked, Prof Jamilur said, “Meeting minutes were never circulated and conveyed to the chairman of the committee, which is I.”
Election Commissioner Brig Gen Shahadat refused to comment regarding the matter.
EVM IN ELECTION
The EC first used EVMs in the Cumilla City Corporation polls in 2012. In the 2015 Rajshahi City Corporation election some machines had stopped working on election day, prompting the EC not to use them further. Instead, the EC took up an around Tk 4,000 crore project to buy new EVMs.
In the December 30, 2018 parliamentary polls, the EC used EVMs in six constituencies, including Dhaka-6.
During the commission’s dialogues ahead of the general election, 35 of the 40 registered parties, including the BNP and its allies, opposed the idea of EVM use.
The rest five -- the ruling Awami League, its allies Workers Party of Bangladesh, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal faction led by Hasanul Haq Inu and Bangladesher Samyabadi Dal (M-L) and Zaker Party -- supported EVM use.
After the December 2018 general polls, new EVMs were used in some polling stations in different city corporation elections, by polls, and upazila polls.
The BNP has all along been opposing the commission’s move alleging that the system enables the government to engineer elections.
“The EVM is nothing but a silent, automated and directed method for vote stealing,” BNP standing committee member Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury said.
“They took power through the voter-less and candidate-less polls in 2014 and by stuffing ballot boxes the night before election day in 2018. It was part of a conspiracy to snatch the voting rights of people.
“The EVM is a new system to snatch the voting rights of people,” he said.
He criticised the EC for not having paper trail system.
CPB Dhaka North City Corporation mayor candidate Sajedul Haq Rubel said, “Voters fear that EVMs will facilitate digital rigging.”
An EVM consists of two connected units, a control unit and a ballot unit.
The BNP leaders raised questions about the security of the ballot unit.
A voter needs to use his/her fingerprint for verification at the control unit. Once verified, the ballot unit opens but anyone can then cast the vote intimidating the voter, they said.
Election Commissioner Brig Gen (retd) Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury said, “If a booth is forcefully captured, it is not the fault of machines.” Law enforcers will be able to keep the law and order under control.
Transparency International Bangladesh Trustee Hafizuddin Khan, Election experts like Prof Tofail Ahmed and Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik Secretary Badiul Alam Majumdar, all expressed concern over the EC’s hurried decision to use EVMs in all polling centres of the city polls.
Tofail pointed out that 8 to 10 countries, including India, Brazil, the Philippines, and Mexico, are using EVMs. “Brazil and India went through a rigorous trial-and-error process and had modifications done to the machines to meet their needs,” he said.
Over the last few years, countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland had stopped using EVMs, he added.
“Why did the commission suddenly decide to spend nearly Tk 4,000 crore to buy EVMs when there was no budgetary allocation for such purchase and when at least 12 registered political parties, including the BNP, opposed their use?” Badiul said.
Tofail and Badiul also questioned the election officer’s power to override the EVMs control units in case the machines failed to verify the identity of a voter with the fingerprint.
EC Senior Secretary MD Alamgir said election officers will be able to override the EVM for only one percent of the voters. “There is no scope of irregularities.”
PUBLICITY OF EVM
Tofail and Hafizuddin came down heavily on the EC for not conducting enough publicity programmes to educate voters about how to use EVMs.
Several voters told The Daily Star that they had no idea how to cast their votes via the EVMs and that they were unsure if their votes would be valid.
Brig Gen Shahadat said they held EVM exhibitions in all polling centres yesterday and would hold a mock voting tomorrow in all centres.
“We are also airing TV commercials, running ads in newspapers, holding awareness programme at schools to make the voters aware,” he said.
The EC has readied 35,000 EVMs.
One machine will be used in each of the 14,600 polling booths and another one will be on standby.
There will be two army technicians in each of the 2,468 polling centres on election day.
He said there was nothing to worry about the use of EVMs in these polls. The elections would be smooth and all would be able to cast votes.
“There is no scope for silent vote rigging. We had used the EVMs in the parliamentary, local government, and city corporation elections. Voters or candidates did not raise such allegations,” Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda said on January 6.