LAHORE: As Pakistan braces itself for General Elections in July 2018, concerns have been expressed around privacy of voter information.
Particularly, the recent privacy concerns are rooted in the issue of handing electoral rolls to the election candidates.
According to section 79 (3) of the Elections Act 2017, “On the application of a candidate or his election agent, the District Election Commissioner or any officer authorized in this behalf by the Commission shall provide to a candidate or an election agent a hard and searchable soft copy on universal serial bus (USB) in portable document format (PDF) or any other tamper-proof format of the final electoral roll with photographs of the voters and shall ensure that the copy is the same as provided to the Returning Officer and Presiding Officers.”
The electoral rolls contain the name, father name, National Identity card number, house address and a picture of the voter.
For some, this is the step in the right direction as it would allow candidates to reach their voters and also verify them on elections day. For some, this poses a threat to the privacy of the individual and gives too much power to the candidate.
Ms. Zokhruf Omer, the convener of Legal Hackers Lahore chapter, condemned this practice and expressed fear that the information on electoral rolls could potentially fall in the wrong hands. “Section 79(3) Election Act 2017 is a general provision and does not contain a specific list of circumstances where sharing the electoral roll with a candidate may be justified. This can apart from breach of privacy lead to serious election offences such as bribery, undue influence, treating and personation”.
Meanwhile, Yasser Latif Hamdani, an Islamabad based lawyer, considered this practice a good step but also feared that this could allow some elements to target minorities.
“On the one hand this is a very good idea because it would give candidates an opportunity to contact their constituents directly. But on the other given that these rolls contain addresses it can be problematic especially for Ahmadis registered as voters because they are specifically identified on separate rolls as Ahmadis. It therefore has the potential to backfire. I think on the whole this might turn out to be disastrous and may even violate Article 14 of the Constitution (privacy).”
Meanwhile, exclusively talking to Digital Rights Monitor, Election Commission of Pakistan Public Relations Officer Ms.Huda Gohar pointed out that it was a routine practice to allow candidates access to electoral rolls. She noted that in the previous elections, candidates and their polling agents had access to the hard copy of electoral rolls without the pictures. “The electoral rolls having CNIC, name and picture of the voter was only with the presiding officers back in 2013.”
However, in this election, the candidates will have access to same list as that possessed by the election commission staff, containing the voter’s picture, name, CNIC number and address, said Ms.Gohar. They would not only be allowed to access hard copy but also the soft copy.
Ms. Huda also acknowledged some of the concerns around privacy. She stated that the some quarters raised the concern on the floor of the parliament that the pictures of females on electoral roll should not be placed. “However, it was finally decided that candidates will have access to the electoral rolls with pictures of the voter.”
When pressed around the potential misuse of the electoral rolls to harm the individuals or bribe them, Ms. Huda stated that any change to this practice was only possible if the public complained about it to the election commission or challenged this practice in the courts. She emphasized that no such complaint had been received in the past about the misuse of electoral roll information.
Talal Raza is a Program Manager at Media Matters for Democracy. He has worked with renowned media organizations and NGOs including Geo News, The Nation, United States Institute of Peace and Privacy International.