First-time voters: failed by technology or the system? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 04, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:06 AM, January 04, 2019

First-time voters: failed by technology or the system?

The results of the 11th Bangladeshi general election was supposed to be determined by the Bangladeshi youth who constitute roughly one-fourth of all voters. According to the Bangladesh Election Commission (EC), since 2008, 23.5 million Bangladeshi youth registered themselves as voters—many of whom were to cast their vote for the first time in the 2018 general election, as the previous election in 2014 was boycotted by all major political parties and voter turnout was only 51.37 percent.

It has not been easy for the Awami League to garner support from the youth, who remember only too vividly how their peaceful demonstrations during the quota and road safety movements were suppressed by the government. On the other hand, for the opposition parties, the challenge was to formulate a manifesto that would propose positive and sustainable change and create opportunities for the disenchanted part of Bangladesh's population. Despite misgivings about low voter turn-out amongst the youth, social media trends suggested that young Bangladeshis were, in fact, quite excited about participating in the elections and outspoken while expressing their political opinions on social media. There was no doubt that, unlike in 2014, first-time voters would show up to the polls to cast their vote on December 30, 2018.

However, things did not happen as expected. A huge number of first-time voters could not even exercise their voting right at the polling stations, despite having national ID cards and voter registration numbers.

On December 29, the EC introduced an online platform for voters through which they would be able to know their polling centre and serial number by typing their NID numbers or voter form numbers and date of birth. Unfortunately, Bangladeshi voters, 93.57 percent of whom access internet using mobile phone networks according to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), could hardly benefit from this portal as mobile internet was shut down by the government on the eve of the elections. Besides, the online portal, in many cases, showed an error report after the required numbers were typed. On the other hand, we got hundreds of allegations that the EC's SMS service to inform the voters of their serial numbers and polling centre did not work.

Nilima Samaddar, a Master's student at the University of Dhaka and a first-time voter, went through a harassing experience when she tried to find her serial number and polling centre. She got registered as a voter in 2012, but had not cast her vote in 2014. She was a voter of Dhaka-9 constituency. She, like many of her neighbours, did not get any voter slip from the candidates. On the day before the election, she visited the EC's online portal and inserted her NID number and date of birth only to get the message, “No Voter Centre Information is associated with this NID or Form No. Please contact with our call centre at 105.” following the instructions, she sent a SMS to the EC's call centre but received a similar reply.

As Nilima was determined to cast her vote this time, she went to Khilgaon Model School and College, where she had registered as a voter. “The polling centre was occupied with AL activists. At the polling booth, I found 20-25 of them wearing headbands of 'boat'. They all looked like thugs and the environment inside the centre was not friendly at all,” she describes.

“As some of them introduced themselves as polling agents, I asked them about my serial number. They told me to come after lunch as they had not received serial numbers of smart card holders yet.” So, Nilima went back to the polling centre again at 2:30pm. This time she was told by another polling agent that they would not be able to find her serial number as they did not have a computer with an internet connection. “And the EC would not send any more serial numbers as the election would end within one and a half hour,” says a frustrated Nilima, who had no choice but to return home without casting her vote.

Nilima's friend Hafsa could cast a vote, but it wasn't hers! She, too, also unable to get her serial number from the EC's website and call centre, walked to a nearby polling centre herself. When she was about to be refused by the AL polling agents, one AL worker (who was not wearing an EC badge) rushed in. He said, “Why don't you allow this sister to cast a vote? She has come from a distant place just to cast a vote.”

“Upon hearing his order, the agent quickly inked my finger without even asking me and then gave me the ballot book,” she says, adding that he asked her to take the seal and cast the vote in front of him and two other AL men. “But I told them that I needed to go to the secluded polling booth to cast my vote—they looked at me with such incredulity it seemed they had never heard of such an odd request. Then that AL activist intervened again and shouted at the agent, 'Let her go. Sister, you can go inside. Cast your vote to whomever you like, no problem'.”

“I was literally at a loss. I am so sorry that it was my first-time voting experience and I don't even know whose vote I cast. I am so sorry for that,” shares Hafsa.

Aaquib Md Shatil, an employee of an NGO, had to go to four polling centres just to get his serial number. “I remember when candidates from different parties would come to our house to provide us with a slip that carried a voter number and the name of the polling centre. But this year, no one even came asking for our vote, let alone give us a manifesto and slip. I went to a local election camp of the AL and they couldn't even find my name in their list. I moved from one centre to another to find my serial number as I was determined to cast my vote,” he says. 

Not all young voters had his patience and determination, and were simply thrown off by the long and arduous struggle of obtaining a simple piece of information. 

“This is absurd,” said M Asaduzzaman, Joint Secretary of the Election Commission, when asked about this difficulty in obtaining serial numbers, told The Daily Star. “The polling officials at the polling centres are bound to provide voters' serial number when a voter comes at the polling centre.”

Farzana Akhter, system analyst (data management) of the EC says, “Serial numbers and polling centres of the voters were actually registered into our database by the returning officers of the respective polling centres. If they fail to register it correctly or if they miss any information by mistake, the voters will not be able to get it.” 

Meanwhile, irregularities with the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM), introduced for the first time in this election with the promise of better transparency in the election process, has left many young voters feeling confused.

EVMs were supposed to be activated only by the voter's smart card, voter number or national identification number. The polling officers would then match the photo with the voter's face and also take their fingerprint to complete the verification process. Nevertheless, voters, particularly young voters, were rejected, intimidated by, and fell prey to the ruling party activists in the EVM centres as well, according to reports from our correspondents.

Omar Faruk, a student of a private university, was a voter of Dhaka-13 constituency, and excited about casting his vote using an EVM. However, when he went to Mohammadpur Girls High School polling centre at around 12:00 pm, he found it closed. When asked why, AL workers guarding the centre told him that the EVM machines had stopped working.

Like Omar, many voters who came to vote at different polling centres of Dhaka-13 constituencies between 12:00 to 4:00 pm found them closed intermittently due to “malfunctioning EVMs” and had to return without voting. According to our correspondents, voting was stopped for two to six hours at a stretch in six booths of five polling centres of Dhaka-13 constituency.

On the other hand, Nawrin Ahmed, living in Khilji road of Mohammadpur area went to vote at Mohammadpur Central University centre where EVMs failed to recognise her fingerprint. “I tried thrice but it did not recognise my fingerprint. Then the polling officer accessed my profile with the help of the (assistant) presiding officer. The officer asked me to take help of a polling agent to cast vote saying, 'You have problems in your finger. She will help you to cast the vote.' I was about to protest but two female polling agents pushed me and took me inside the room and pressed my finger on 'boat' without taking my consent. Seeing the polling centre full of AL activists, I did not protest but I was feeling really ashamed and nervous”.

Nawrin's allegations were echoed by many voters who voted in the EVM centres. In some cases, after completing verification, they were told to take the “help” of AL activists inside the polling centre, who either forced them to vote for 'boat' or cast the vote themselves. In one instance, a voter named Sharmin Sultana, who went to vote at Sher-E-Bangla primary school in Khulna-2 constituency, showed the courage to say no when she was told to take the “help” of AL activist. As a result, AL activists dragged her outside the polling room and threatened her to leave the centre at once. 

News reports from around the country highlight that polling agents from the Jatiya Oikyafront and other parties were non-existent at polling centres. Allegations of stuffing of ballot boxes, intimidating voters and vote rigging were rampant all across the country. At least 21 people have been killed during post-poll violence within two days of the election and a mother of four has been gangraped only because she cast her ballot for 'sheaf of paddy' and got into a scuffle with the AL activists.  The Chief Election Commissioner, however, expressed “complete satisfaction” over this election and said, “We are proud of it.”

One can only hope that the unpleasant experiences of first-time voters in this election will not deter them from engaging in the political process. If these citizens get disillusioned with the country's politics, particularly the electoral system, the future of Bangladesh's democracy will definitely be affected.

 

The writer can be contacted at shahnawaz.khan@thedailystar.net

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