Amid strong opposition from one election commissioner, the Election Commission yesterday decided to send a proposal to the government for amending the electoral laws so it can use electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the December national polls.
The sudden move by the EC to use voting machines raised serious questions about the Commission's motive, and touched off a political debate.
The EC made the decision at a six-hour meeting, chaired by Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda.
Mahbub Talukder, one of the five election commissioners, walked out of the meeting within 20 minutes, giving a note of dissent on the EC's move.
In his dissent note, obtained by The Daily Star, Mahbub said that from the beginning the CEC had been saying that EVMs would be used in the next parliamentary elections only if there was a consensus among all the political parties.
“Although the ruling party welcomed the use of EVMs, the main opposition [BNP] and other political parties have opposed it. During the Election Commission's dialogue with political parties [in October 2017], the ruling party and the main opposition party gave opposing views about using EVMs,” he wrote.
“It was necessary to discuss further with the political parties and create a consensus before making the final decision regarding the use of EVMs in the next election,” he added.
All the three other election commissioners were present at the meeting that began at 11:10am at the Nirbachan Bhaban in the capital's Agargaon.
Earlier on August 26, the EC held a meeting to decide on the matter, but it was postponed till yesterday.
But even before the amendment and any sort of consensus among political parties, the Commission has initiated a move to procure 1.5 lakh EVMs at an estimated cost of Tk 3,821 crore. It even sent a proposal to the planning ministry to this end.
And although the EC seems desperate about the EVM project, it did not carry out any feasibility study, according to Planning Commission documents seen by The Daily Star.
On Tuesday, EC Secretary Helaluddin Ahmed said they were planning to use EVMs in some 100 out of the 300 constituencies, which means there would be electronic voting in at least 14,500 out of some 44,000 polling stations.
EC officials estimate that they can arrange E-voting in about half of the total voting centres with the 1.5 lakh EVMs they seek to procure.
Briefing reporters after the meeting, the CEC said the Commission did not make any decision yet about using the machines in the upcoming general election.
“If the necessary law [The Representation of the People Order] is passed, and if everything remains in our favour, then we will go for using EVMs.”
Asked if the EC would hold dialogues with political parties and other stakeholders about it, he said they would arrange fairs in different parts of the country, including Dhaka, so everyone can learn about it.
“Everyone, including the political parties, is invited to the fair.”
During last year's dialogue with the EC, 23 of the 39 registered political parties gave their opinions about using voting machines in the next national election. Of them, 12 parties, including the BNP, opposed the idea while the Awami League and six other parties supported it.
Three political parties had supported using EVMs on a trial basis while the rest one party supported the idea, but on several conditions, an EC joint secretary told The Daily Star.
When his attention was drawn to this, the CEC said, “It's not yet certain that EVMs will be used in the next election. We are only getting ourselves ready … as we got good results in the local body elections by using EVMs.”
He also said he did not agree with his dissenting colleague that there was little time to train up the EC officials and others on using these machines.
About Mahbub Talukder's opposition, the CEC said, “He [Mahbub] has given his opinion in a democratic environment. But the three other commissioners have supported the amendment proposal.”
Replying to a question, the CEC said he did not know how many countries were using voting machines at present.
Asked if the EC carried out any study about using EVMs, he replied in the negative.
About his previous comment that the EC would not use EVMs in the next national election if all political parties did not want it, CEC Huda said they would discuss the issue again with political parties before making a decision on the matter.
Asked why the EC hastily moved to use EVMs, he said they were creating the ground for using the machines as they received “spontaneous response” from people during the local elections.
Replying to another question, he said he did not think people would lose confidence in the EC for its move amid opposition from an election commissioner and many political parties.
The proposal to amend the RPO, which regulates election, will now be sent to the law ministry for vetting and subsequently for placing it in parliament, which is due to go on session on September 9. The bill also needs cabinet's approval.
BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir criticised the move, saying it was an “evil accord between the Commission and the government to manipulate the polls result.”
Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader, also the road transport minister, said they supported the idea of using the machines but would accept the EC's decision on the matter.
Talking to reporters at his office later in the evening, Mahbub said the issue of using EVMs in the next election was not mentioned anywhere in the EC's workplan.
“I fail to understand why the EVM issue became so important all of a sudden ahead of the next parliamentary election,” he added.
Earlier on April 8, Mahbub gave another note of dissent on the EC's move to allocate Tk 50 crore to buy 2,535 EVMs when such machines were being used on a trial basis.
In his yesterday's note of dissent, he questioned the logic behind spending so much money (Tk 3,821 crore) when it was not even certain if the EVMs would be used in the upcoming election.
He also raised questions about the origin of the EVMs, saying that the machines were being bought from Bangladesh Machine Tools Factory without floating any tender.
He said it was necessary to further examine whether the EVMs were completely free from technical glitches.
Mahbub also said some unwarranted incidents took place in the recent city corporation polls over the use of EVMs which was unexpected.
“Even, allegations were raised that votes were cast in favour of a certain party using EVMs after capturing the polling stations,” he added.