Solutions Collection: Two simple innovations improve voter list accuracy, turnout, and reduce fraud

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Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP)
- an independent, autonomous, and constitutionally established federal institution responsible with the function of administrating the general electoral process in Pakistan Wikipedia link
Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN)
- established in 2006 as a coalition of 30 non-governmental organizations to observe the general elections and mobilize voters. The Asia Foundation facilitated the formation of the network; currently governed by the Trust for Democratic Education and Accountability (TDEA).FAFEN website
Global Conference on Electoral Reforms
organized by the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies (ICPS), held in Kuala Lumpur in 2013
International Digital Organization for Scientific Information (IDOSI)
- a worldwide Organization that takes aim to help scientists and researchers (especially from developing countries), publish recent findings in our scientific journals.IDOSI website
National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) - Pakistan
- the official organization that maintains Pakistan's voter list databank Wikipedia link
Popular Engagement Policy Lab (PEPL)
- a policy lab dedicated to innovation in population engagement, developing research and two-way communications for hard to access communities in fragile and developing environments. PEPL website
Short Message Service (SMS)
- a text messaging service component of phone, web, or mobile communication systems. Wikipedia link
Ushahidi, Inc. (Kenya)
crowdsourcing for social activism and public accountability, creating activist mapping; its technology used in South Africa, Congo, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, Mexico and India. Wikipedia link

Sit up and take notice because this can work well where you live: An award-winning voting rights innovation improved voter lists in Pakistan, where an SMS mobile phone text-messaging system got voters to interact with voter lists to correct errors and see where to vote. Out of 85 million registered voters, the SMS system got 55 million hits; voter turnout increased, and marginalized groups like persons with disabilities measurably increased election engagement.

In addition, public voter list display at over 50,000 neighborhood locations helped resolve problems on the spot and aided in detection of systemically disenfranchised groups. Voter list display engaged everyone in list scrutiny and caught a voter list stuffing incident.

Crowd-sourcing voter list accuracy increases public engagement in elections and could easily be expanded to any country.

Did you know that there are awards for election transparency innovations? At the Global Conference on Electoral Reforms, Pakistan won an award for its voter SMS system. Public interest organizations like Ushahidi offer cash awards for innovations that enhance public participation.

Election integrity is a complex problem, and complex problems require a suite of solutions. Progress can best be made through incremental continuous steps. So pick the step where you want to start.” — Eva Waskell1



Building accurate, fully enfranchised voter lists is a hefty challenge for election administrators everywhere. While the first step is compiling a confirmed and more accurate computerized database, voters still need to engage somewhere to correct their own evolving information. After decades of dubious voter lists and questionable elections,2 Pakistan first cleaned up and computerized its voter list, and then took effective steps that many countries omit: further improving accuracy and more effectively communicating polling information, Pakistan added an SMS system and neighborhood voter list displays.


Pakistan developed a convenient method to use mobile phones, successfully getting over half of all voters to check their voter list information for accuracy, and at the same time, obtain their polling place location. Available to everyone anywhere in Pakistan, this very heavily publicized text messaging system involved simply dialing “8300” and identifying oneself. Every registered voter in Pakistan used a voter card with their unique voter number.3 (In the USA, a unique number is assigned to each voter in the statewide database but is only sporadically provided to the voter if at all; it has no particular use for most voters). After noticing an error, Pakistanis could correct it by going to neighborhood voter list display centers.

The Pakistani SMS application proved to be more convenient and appealing to voters than trying to navigate government Web sites. The system popularized engagement between voters and voter lists: the SMS service served vastly more voters than neighborhood display centers, although the display centers added two very important functions, allowing correction of errors and enabling analysis of the full voter list.

Results: Out of 85 million voters, if the 55 million hits represented just one hit per registered voter, that would represent 65 percent of all voters using SMS to check registration and polling place. It’s likely that some people hit the system more than once, yielding a lower but still impressive percentage of engagement. According to the International Digital Organization for Scientific Information, the SMS system also correlated with increased interest in voting for persons with disabilities, who could now easily ascertain where to cast an accessible vote.4 Overall, turnout increased.5

Literacy issues and access to mobile devices: With Pakistan’s 30 percent literacy rate.6 you might think that text messaging would have limited usefulness. But mobile phones are widely used throughout Pakistan by both literate and non-literate citizens. According to a study by the Popular Engagement Policy Lab, although less than half the population owns a mobile phone, more than 70 percent have regular access to a mobile phone; the study found that the majority of Pakistani citizens accessed mobile phones regardless of income and that 47 percent of phone-owners used SMS. In addition to sharing phones, Pakistanis share literacy by collaborating with other mobile device users.7

Problems and issues: Overall, the system worked well. Voter-reported problems were mostly resolved, though some candidates complained of lingering inaccuracies. A deadline for resolving issues was extended at one point because so many voters participated and submitted corrections.8 On Election Day, heavy traffic on the SMS system produced temporary technical problems.9 A few citizens complained that the SMS service was not free; each contact cost Rs. 2 plus tax, equivalent to less than two US pennies.10

Awards and incentives: At the Global Conference on Electoral Reforms, Pakistan won two awards for its SMS mobile technology service.11 Other organizations are encouraging similar innovations, like PEPL (a policy lab dedicated to innovation in population engagement) and Ushahidi (an open source project dedicated to finding ways to improve citizen-government interaction). Ushahidi launched the Global Innovation Competition in Nov. 2013, offering 10 prizes of up to £65,000 ($106,000) for innovations to help increase government transparency and accountability and “make all voices count.”12


Pakistan put voter lists on display for 21 days at more than 50,000 display centers across the country, posting corrected lists shortly before the election. Voters could use neighborhood display centers to resolve problems discovered either with the SMS system or at the display area. Involving the public in this way yielded some remarkable results. Among them:

1. Voting rights groups, like the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) analyzed voter lists and discovered over 10 million women missing from the rolls, prompting efforts to find out why.13

2. One group, the Ahmadi community, was found to be sidelined into a supplemental list, with over 100,000 Ahmadis affected.14

3. Over 100,000 residents of Karachi were discovered to have been displaced into the wrong voting district, remedied before the election.15

4. Evidence of voter roll stuffing in at least four districts was detected after display of preliminary voter lists. Voters spotted irregularities triggering a formal investigation by NADRA (National Database and Registration Authority, charged with the establishment of Pakistan’s voter registration system), which discovered that just five individuals, without knowledge of the voters, had altered thousands of voter records. The false registrations were removed and action taken against the perpetrators.16

Publishing voter lists caught disenfranchisement, subtle data diversions, voter list stuffing and data errors. Because any person at all can analyze full voter lists, sunshine hit the problems and most were resolved. Neighborhood display centers also provided an easy way for citizens to correct their information.

Voter list SMS, neighborhood display centers, and the USA

Well-suited to the USA’s mobile device-toting voters, SMS systems could help voters more easily find the correct polling place and would help election officials maintain more accurate lists, resulting in greater enfranchisement, more people actually going to the polls, and fewer provisional ballots. It should be noted that Pakistan, with a low literacy rate, poverty, and ethnic factionalization, very nearly beat the more literate, wired and wealthy state of Texas in voter turnout. Texas 2012 turnout checks in at just 58 percent, as compared with Pakistan’s 55 percent. 17

Posting voter lists at display centers could be achieved either through an Internet site or through neighborhood kiosks, enabling voters to easily correct information and analyze full lists for irregularities. Note that public display serves a different purpose than SMS systems. One provides the full list and correction for individual data; the other provides individual checking and poll information.

Does same-day registration achieve the same benefit as list display or SMS systems? No. Election Day Registration can combat vote suppression by reinstating voters not on the list, but it does not help people go to the correct polling place. An SMS system engages voters in an appealing and easy way, getting them to the right polling place, and better flags incorrect information before Election Day.

Same-day registration does nothing whatever to identify voter list stuffing or targeted data diversion. That Pakistan caught several such problems through public voter list display should not be interpreted to mean that they have more list stuffing or data diversion than the US. Because voter lists aren’t widely published in the US, they lack the public scrutiny needed to identify such irregularities.

How about vote centers? The fashion in many US states is to add combined vote centers where everyone can vote in the same place, regardless of where they live. But besides reducing ballot secrecy, that addresses entirely different issues than SMS systems or public voter list display, and may actually make elections less fair. More voters get the wrong ballots at combined vote centers; causing them to vote for the wrong candidates, and not to be able to vote for the right ones.

In short, the SMS and public voter list display concepts solve different problems than same-day registration or vote centers. By creating more engaged citizens, these methods significantly enhance anti-corruption strategies through public transparency, and help administrators maintain more accurate voter lists.


  1. Eva Waskell has been a US election integrity research for 25 years, chronicling a history of the changes in transparency of US elections.
  2. Report of the Commonwealth Observer Mission: Pakistan General Elections 11 May 2013,, 05/11/2013,
  3. Check your Vote Status info via SMS for Election 2013 in Pakistan, Pakistan Web, 03/22/2013,
  4. The Effect of SMS Service on the Political Participation of Person with Disabilities (PWDs) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Pakistan), International Digital Organization for Scientific Information, 05/25/2013,
  5. Voter turnout data for Pakistan, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA),
  6. E-voting , The International News, 12/16/2013,
  7. Innovation in People-First Stabilisation, Popular Engagement Policy Lab, June 2011,
  8. Voters list verification process deadline extended: ECP , GEO TV, 03/20/2012,
  9. Report of the Commonwealth Observer Mission: Pakistan General Elections 11 May 2013,, 05/11/2013,
  10. The money converter
  11. ECP receives global award for SMS voter info, The International News, 12/06/2013, 
  12. The Global Innovation Competition, Ushahidi Blog, 11/13/2013,
  13. Rosita Armytage and Shahid Fiaz: Why Are 10 Million Women Missing from Pakistan’s Electoral Rolls?, Asia Foundation, 04/04/2012,
  14. Report of the Commonwealth Observer Mission: Pakistan General Elections 11 May 2013,, 05/11/2013,
  15. ibid
  16. ECP, Nadra solve mystery of abnormal increase in registered voters , The International News, 03/18/2012,
  17. Data Source: US Election Assistance Commission 2012 Data Tables.


Comments (4)

  1. posted by Bev Harris on March 5, 2014

    Yesterday there was an election in Texas, marred by problems when cold weather caused voting machines to be delivered late, and due to polling places being moved. The SMS solution used by Pakistan would have solved a problem: Multiple counties, and the Secretary of State website went down for several hours as people scrambled to find out where to vote and where the hours had been extended due to inclement weather. Phone lines were also overwhelmed, so calls went unanswered. A simple text messaging system using SMS can remain functional more easily than live operators or web sites, because text messaging puts minimal load on the system. At the very least, the US should consider implementing a text messaging service with voter registration confirmation and polling place locations, as Pakistan has. Emergency updates could easily be incorporated into the system, far more efficiently than the methods we currently use.

  2. posted by Tom Courbat on March 5, 2014

    Excellent proposals. Getting them implemented, especially in all 50 states, or at least in the states that are swing states or states with major populations will likely prove to be a major effort. As you reported elsewhere, Utah is trying to HIDE voter registration information – a great way to ensure we don’t have access to one of the 4 key elements to a fair and transparent election as you have outlined for years now. We need to get some of these – what do they call them – instant show ups – that’s not the name but it’s where 100s or 1,000s of folks show up all at once at a particular location to do something – in this case – perhaps rally the idea of online voter registration lists – in front of the legislature of any given state. I tried to get a legislator in CA to carry a bill requiring that last year but she held back but DID pass a law requiring the posting of final election results (called the Statement of Vote here in CA) on their Website and keep it there for 10 years – and the Secretary of State is to do the same for all 58 counties in the state.

  3. posted by Sanitystillexists on February 7, 2014

    The voter display system would be an excellent replacement to what we have here, for a number of obvious reasons:
    – A state is able to come up with a list of individuals who are eligible to vote. Number of people with drivers, or nondrivers liscences, recieving social security, number who turned 18 subtract number who died, became residents of other states, students claimed as dependents on parents social security, medicaid recipients, parents of children who are in school, credit bureaus of people in state- subtract duplicates, check against US birth or citizenship records, people not eligible to vote (felons, judged incapable- insanity) duplicate votes from the same person, Note that this method could be applied much more easily in the United States where information on residents is readily available. If residents are given a unique identifier, this can be used to prevent duplicate votes from the same person.

    Giving people web sites to navigate (Odd that there has been such an outcry against picture IDs but not against website registration) , is confusing to the lower income people lawmakers profess to be so concerned about. Confusion creates a vacuum for “assistance” from nonbiased parties – a form of voter fraud.

    It should be embarassing to any US citizen when voter turnout in Pakistan beats any state in the US, although with counties registering as turnouts of 125% of registered voters it’s difficult to know who showed up where.

    At my polling place (NY upstate), under the guise of helpfulness people, all of one party (democrats) here, were forever looking over my shoulder to “help me”. The only way I was able to get some privacy was to in a very loud voice announce “I would like a secret ballot please”. As I voted the paper was shredded.

    I am forced to conclude that none of this smells good. There is no reason for code to be propriety, when a client pays what the US government pays. Counting votes is not a complex process. It can be done on a PC. Any corporation in it’s right mind would have paper backup when introducing a major technical change no matter how much prior testing had been done before. Ask Diebold what they do. There is no reason for volunteers to know whether a voter is republican or democrat. with all of this high tech , I a voter, should be able to type in my name or number, put on some earphones if I don’t want to or am rusty at reading and do the entire thins ALL BY MYSELF. If I need a lesson I could press some buttom or if that’s to hard say I need a lesson, go into ANOTHER ROOM and get one.

    After I finish voting, I get a receipt with all of the information on it, I check it, and if there is a picture ion the screen make sure that is correct. The information is then encypted before any human has a chance to see it. The encrypted vote record is sent to at least 2 different locations. The people sending it do not know what they are sending as they have been sending many files to many places all day long. There is no party data on the file.

    People review the accuracy of the votes, They do not know who is voting for whom as they review accuracy, so they have no incentive to throw any specific papers int the garbage.

    As a statistician, I will say that this magnification of the

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Solutions Collection: Two simple innovations improve voter list accuracy, turnout, and reduce fraud