Of the many doubts raised about the free and fair conduct of elections 2018, one is about the number of rejected votes which stands at around 1.67 million this time. In at least 169 constituencies (both national and provincial), the difference between the votes of the winner and the runner up is larger than the rejected votes.
Compared with the increase in voters — to the tune of 20 million — the increase in rejected votes does not appear as staggering, especially with the 2013 general election throwing up about 1.5 million rejected votes. However, these votes have assumed a special significance in a post-election environment where the losing parties are making serious complaints of rigging.
Many political parties have complained about forced eviction of their polling agents at the time of counting. They allege this was done to tamper with the valid votes of their candidates and count them among rejected votes. They further claim the returning officers are not allowing recounting at many closely contested seats just to cover up what they call a ‘malpractice’. Senator Usman Kakar of Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) has termed rejection of votes the most commonly used tool to rig 2018 election.
Others including the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) attribute lack of voter education and careless handling of votes as reasons for such a large number of rejected votes.
This calls for a critical review of the situation, based on empirical data available from the current and the previous elections; besides looking at what constitutes a rejected vote and how can it be avoided in future.
First of all, one needs to understand whether a ‘rejected’ vote is the same as a ‘spoilt’ vote. The Election Act 2017 differentiates between a spoilt vote and a rejected vote. A spoilt vote is one rendered useless inadvertently by the voter. He can get a new ballot paper before casting. While a rejected vote is one that is declared so at the time of counting.
The rejected votes identified at the time of counting may include those without any official mark and signature of the Presiding Officer (PrO), carrying any writing or any mark other than the official mark, having a piece of paper or any other object attached to it, missing any prescribed mark to indicate the contesting candidate for whom the voter has voted, having multiple stamps on one election symbol, stamps on more than one election symbols and so on.
Psephologist Tahir Mehdi agrees that 1.67 million rejected votes is a huge count but says that that doesn’t tantamount to rigging. “One cannot level such a serious charge without proof. As I see no pattern benefiting one particular party, I am not ready to buy this argument.”
Mehdi says while such a high level of rejection is a matter of concern, “this may be due to the addition of 20 million voters who have no prior experience of voting. India uses voting machines and does not have a single rejected vote; this means every single vote matters there.”
He suggests a detailed audit of the rejected votes to find out what specific errors the voters make and in which areas so that the future voter education programmes can be designed accordingly.
As said earlier, political parties and candidates who have lost with small margins are not ready to take the matter of rejected votes lightly. There are cases where requests for recounting have been rejected by Returning Officers (ROs) though the law allows it in constituencies where the difference of votes between the winning and losing candidates is 5 per cent of the total cast votes or 10,000, whichever is lesser. The victory margin in 79 national and 169 provincial assembly seats is less than 5 per cent of the total votes polled.
The aggrieved candidates can approach Election Tribunals for relief against decisions of ROs but the past experience is that they take too much time to decide. Some of them did approach High Courts and Supreme Court to get recount orders for ROs. The courts provided the required relief in some cases only and, once the victory notifications were issued, advised the candidates to approach the Election Tribunal for this purpose.
At the moment, several losing candidates are struggling to get orders for recount. Makhdoom Faisal Saleh Hayat of PPPP, who lost to a PTI candidate in NA 114 Jhang with a close margin of 589 votes, is just one of them. The number of rejected votes in the constituency is 12,900 which he claims are ‘tampered’.
The rejected votes do not go unnoticed as these are reviewed by the ROs at the time of consolidation of results of all polling stations as well. These are also taken into account during the recounting process. In Hayat’s case, his losing margin decreased by 137 during the recounting of votes at 10 polling stations (13.7 votes per station) but further recounting of the remaining 415 polling stations in the constituency was suspended. He is sure his defeat could turn into success if recounting was done at all these polling stations.
Kunwar Dilshad, former secretary ECP also attributes the increase in number of rejected votes to the increase in the number of voters. He rejects the allegations of rigging through rejected votes by saying that “the NGO hinting at it just wants to justify receiving of huge foreign funds for election monitoring. The same NGO has praised the elections throughout and just wants to add balance to the report for obvious reasons”.
Dilshad adds, “if there had been such a large scale plan to benefit one party through rejected votes, PML-N would not have won 129 seats in Punjab”.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, Executive Director, PILDAT thinks “forensic audit of rejected votes is a good way of determining whether these were tampered with or not. The forensic labs are equipped to determine whether there is a considerable time difference between putting of different marks on the same paper. This will help one discover the truth.”