Making elections work

15 Jun 2013

imageUNDP is working with the Bangladesh Election Commission in piloting electronic voting machines in mayoral polls. Photo: UNDP Bangladesh

90-year old Kiron Bala Talukdar is so frail that she can’t even move without assistance. Yet last week she decided to exercise her democratic right at the polling station. While age may have caught up with her body, her mind is still nimble and she proved that by voting in the recently concluded mayoral elections in Sylhet.

 

On 15 June, four city corporation elections were held across the country and the Election Commission Bangladesh (ECB) decided to introduce Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) in one ward of each of the four city corporations.

 

At Madan Mohan College, Ms. Talukdar along with 6,282 others in Sylhet used the EVM for the first time and the nonagenarian came away from the experience with a smile on her face. “I am happy, for the first time I have used a machine to cast a vote, “ said Ms. Talukdar as she was being helped out of the center by her doting grandsons who arranged her visit to the polling station.

 

Ms. Talukdar’s story is not an isolated one as over 22,500 people in 13 polling centers in Rajshahi, Khulna, Barisal and Sylhet used EVMs to vote during the last week’s mayoral elections, with an overwhelming number of participants stating their satisfaction with arrangements made. 

 

UNDP’s Strengthening Election Management in Bangladesh (SEMB) project supported the entire process and before, during and after the elections sent a team to oversee the new system. The $19.6 million 5-year electoral support project jointly funded by EU, UKaid, USAID and the UNDP consists of technical assistance designed to enhance and further consolidate the institutional and professional capacities of the BEC, its Secretariat and local offices to deliver its mandated functions. 

 

When describing the gambit of the project’s work, Mr. Md. Salim Khan, SEMB, Project Coordinator (a.i) says, “We’re working closely with the ECB to provide all kind of support as per their needs. SEMB has organized a lot of workshops and trainings to enhance capacity of different level election officials. Besides, we’ve already produced some software which is being used in different elections. We are working on producing communications materials and a lot of activities that will have a significant impact on upcoming elections.”

 

The support that he talks about comes in many shapes and forms and for the recent mayoral elections it involved sending teams to find out any inadequacies in the process and the best possible ways to bridge such gaps and to better understand how to further enhance the efficiency of ECB in the administration of elections. Part of that also means helping them modernize systems and procedures to make them faster and more convenient. It was with such issues in mind that two teams from SEMB were sent to oversee the elections in Sylhet and Khulna.

 

They were met by narrow streets wrapped in posters and banners of the mayoral and councilor candidates along with a festive mood more fit for party than an election. The candidates and general public respectfully abided by the electoral rules as security forces remained vigilant in protecting the peaceful atmosphere.

 

On Election Day the SEMB team oversaw the functionality of the EVM system, even though it was used in a very limited capacity. The new experience proved to be exhilarating for all involved.

 

In Khulna, Mohammed Shamim succinctly summed up his experience of EVM voting when he said, “I just pressed a button and voted, nothing could be easier and faster.” And while there may have been teething issues for a few first time voters, the overwhelming number of them said that electronic voting was a faster and easier than they had ever experienced before. To assist first time voters, mock voting sessions were held a week before the actual vote so that people could familiarize themselves with the process. This proved to be beneficial as those who attended the mock voting breezed through the process on Election Day.

 

Both voters and the election officials emphasized the need of more voter education, training of election officials and polling staff regarding a wide range of electoral issues. The SEMB project supported the ECB with the implementation of a three day BRIDGE workshop for election officials for election preparation. Support was also extended to the ECB for a Result Management System for these city corporation elections in yet another effort to increase efficiency.

 

When speaking about the success of the elections Md. Sirazul Islam, Additional Secretary of Election Commission Secretariat and National Project Director of SEMB said, “the Election Commission secretariat, election officials on the ground, polling staff and law enforcement agencies everyone worked hard with a commitment to make city corporation elections a successful one.”


He also went on to add, “The Commission is committed to achieving the highest standard of professionalism, introducing modern technology to elections with the help from government as well as from donors and other stakeholders”.

 

That being said SEMB’s ICT team has been working on extending more cooperation to the ECB for future elections. The project has already introduced new software for inventory management of ECB, result management of elections and some auto generated forms that are used in various elections. “We are using the new software and it has made our work a lot easier”, said an election official in Sylhet. The proof of that statement is that now 90-year old citizens come to vote, knowing that they won’t have to queue in line for too long and that the whole process of letting your voice be democratically heard only takes a few minutes.