Local polls are over. It’s time for voting reforms

Nepal finally conducted the most looked forward local level election on Friday, 13 May 2022. This is the second set of local-level elections held after the promulgation of the new constitution of Nepal in 2015. 

Elections are the time when general citizens get to taste and relish the feeling of democracy. It is a time when people’s voices are heard and democracy thrives. There was a lot of buzz and excitement for this election. News channels and social media platforms were filled with both formal and informal discussions about the possibilities of upcoming elections and outcomes. While some people are still discussing the possibilities of this election, there are some who have already moved on from this discourse as it has become a bit tiring to keep up with the slow counting process. 

Flawed process 

As a result, people have now started questioning the efficiency of the Election Commission and the election officials who are responsible for counting and delivering results on time. More than a week has passed since the election but the counting process of votes is still sluggish. According to the Election Commission, the counting of 80 percent of votes has been completed by May 19. As of May 22, 2022, 2:29 pm, 33,677 candidates have been elected which includes 256 mayors, 256 deputy mayors, 453 rural municipality chairpersons, 453 vice-chairpersons, 6,476 ward chairpersons, 6,473 women members, 6,359 Dalit women members, and 12,951 ward members. A more rapid counting is expected now, as the election officials of those areas where the counting has been completed will be brought in to finish counting in areas where counting is still ongoing.

Elections ensure democracy and the first public service of democracy is to timely deliver the voting results. Slow voting results paint a bleak picture for other public delivery services in Nepal and foreshadow how the public delivery services will be handled. Nepal had a time period of five years to plan for better elections and a better election process. However, not many reforms have been made in this election, since similar patterns are being repeated. 

People had already anticipated the delay in the vote-counting process due to numerous factors. One of them is confusing ballot papers. The election commission had printed two types of ballot papers for the local elections: one-page and two-page ballot papers. Several experts had noted that the design of ballot papers is confusing, with numerous symbols splashed across the ballot paper on rows and columns. As a result, people found it difficult to vote for the candidates they wanted to.  The Commission seems to have made the ballot paper according to their own convenience without prior testing. The format, layout, and material of the paper along with ink have increased the suspicion that the number of invalid votes this year in elections would be high. Santosh Sigdel, an advocate, noted that the chances of invalid votes might be 30 percent to 35 percent. The choices and the voices of people would be largely stifled if people cannot vote properly and if their vote is not considered. While we shout slogans saying “one vote matters” it is essential that we create mechanisms where the vote of each and every citizen is considered in the counting by creating the least amount of invalid votes. This can only be accomplished if Nepal moves towards voting reforms, both in terms of casting votes and counting votes.

Measures for reforms 

Election symbols were used when the literacy rate of Nepal was 20 percent. Now that Nepal is expected to reach a literacy rate of 70 percent, Nepal can explore the idea of adopting other methods of voting by leveraging growing technological advancements. According to a report by the National Telecommunications Authority Nepal, ninety-one percent of the country’s population has access to the internet in the country. With increasing internet use, literacy rate, and Nepal’s plan for Digital Nepal, Nepal can use electronic voting, internet voting, and other technical methods to simplify the voting process. 

Adopting technology for voting can increase the efficiency of the whole electoral process. Nepal can move forward by allowing the internet to handle the process of registration, voting, and counting. There are numerous countries that have adopted different forms of electronic voting. Countries like Estonia, India, Bhutan, Brazil, and many more have made successful use of the electronic voting system during the election. Estonia, the pioneering country in electronic voting, provides internet voting to its citizens through national identity cards. Estonia made e-voting possible by issuing national identity cards equipped with computer-readable microchips—the chip that they used to access online ballots. A voter only needs a computer equipped with an electronic card reader, ID card, and PIN number to vote. Separate days are allocated for e-voting which is usually days prior to the paper voting day. Nepal has started issuing national identity cards to its citizens as a method to manage citizens’ records in one single space. Thus the idea followed by Estonia can be a good alternative for Nepal to explore voting reform as it has already started the process of issuing national identity cards. 

Electronic voting is being piloted by many countries in recent times. This is largely due to the numerous advantages that are associated with it. Electronic voting is a quicker, more efficient, and cheaper way of collecting and counting votes. India, the world’s largest democracy, adopted an electronic voting system to expand inclusion in the voting system and to save the cost of the election process. A report entitled Democracy Rebooted: The Future of Technology in Elections stated that eliminating paper ballots saved up to eleven thousand metric tons of paper for each national election in India. India reduced its cost by developing a system that cost under $300 per unit. Nepal this year spent Rs. 459 rupees per voter in the current election. This cost can be greatly reduced if Nepal takes up electronic voting as one unit can address a large number of voters. 

Another added bonus of electronic voting is an increased number of votes. There are a significant number of Nepali citizens, who have migrated from their voting place to city areas for education or employment opportunities. Some of them are unable to travel all across to their local level for elections. This decreases the number of citizens involved in elections. For the democratic process to enhance the highest involvement of citizens is a prerequisite. If people have the opportunity to vote from their current place of residence without traveling far then the possibility of voters’ turn out will also be higher. If Nepal applies the system of electronic voting (in specific internet voting as applied by Estonia) then it can also address the issue of enabling Nepalis abroad to vote—the issue that has been in discussion for a significant amount of time. 

Electronic voting can also help address the issue of invalid votes in Nepal. Nepal can adopt multiple methods of voting and provide various methods of voting in order to increase voter participation and increase efficiency. Adopting new methods does not mean that the older methods have to be cast aside. Nepal can continue with the process of paper ballots while still providing other methods of voting for its citizens. Citizens would have a choice on how they’d choose to vote. Citizens who prepare e-voting or i-voting can opt for it while others can continue with paper ballot voting. Estonia, despite being a pioneering nation in e-voting, still places larger importance on paper votes.

Test and apply 

While these systems are very useful and effective to enforce a quicker and more efficient electoral process they cannot be applied without proper testing and piloting as there are still many challenging issues with their implementation. A proper study should be conducted to understand if these voting systems are feasible for Nepal. Just like the UK, Brazil, Ireland, Paraguay, and many other countries Nepal can take its first step by introducing pilot projects in certain local units to see if these methods can be implemented. The results of pilot testing can help determine if the method can be expanded nationwide. 

Despite their advantages, e-voting and i-voting have numerous security and technical issues that need to be addressed. Nepal does have a late mover advantage when it comes to adopting electronic voting. This allows Nepal to learn from international success, failures, and lessons to build a robust system that can avoid issues faced by other nations. Nepal definitely has a long way to go before implementing electronic voting. But it has to start its process soon in order to avoid similar problems in upcoming elections. 

Other than electronic voting Nepal needs to change the layout, and design of paper ballots in order to reduce invalid votes and voting confusion along with adjustments in the vote-counting system. The Election Commission should consider printing different ballot papers for mayor candidates and ward candidates in order to avoid the confusion of numerous symbols and small voting areas. 

The vote counting of each ward representative can be managed by people deployed in their respective wards. This ensures quicker counting and results, unlike the current system where the counters have to count all candidates from mayors to ward representatives. Dividing the work burden among officials by allocating separate people for counting mayor votes and ward representatives can enhance the election process. 

This article was originally published in Nepal Live Today by Shreya Subedi on May 23, 2022.