Pakistan: Simple innovations improve voter list accuracy, turnout, and reduce fraud

By January 20, 2014July 4th, 2015Uncategorized

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 Waskell


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,1 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.2 (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.3 Overall, turnout increased.4

Literacy issues and access to mobile devices: With Pakistan’s 30 percent literacy rate,5 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.6

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.7 On Election Day, heavy traffic on the SMS system produced temporary technical problems.8 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.9

Awards and incentives: At the Global Conference on Electoral Reforms, Pakistan won two awards for its SMS mobile technology service.10 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.”11


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. Vote suppression: 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.12

2. Vote suppression: One group, the Ahmadi community, was found to be sidelined into a supplemental list, with over 100,000 Ahmadis affected.13

3. Vote suppression: Over 100,000 residents of Karachi were discovered to have been displaced into the wrong voting district, remedied before the election. 14

4. Vote stuffing: 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.15

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.16

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.

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Eva Waskell has been a US election integrity research for 25 years, chronicling a history of the changes in transparency of US elections.


All Black Box Voting stories related to Pakistan  –

Black Box Voting geographic index –


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:

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).

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.

National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) – Pakistan – the official organization that maintains Pakistan’s voter list databank

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.

Ushahidi, Inc.  – a Kenya-based organization focusing on creating crowdsourcing applications for social activism and public accountability, creating activist mapping; its technology used in South Africa, Congo, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, Mexico and India.


Election transparency: Election transparency is the public ability to see and verify each essential step in elections, the essential steps being: (1) who can vote (voter list), (2) who did vote (poll list, or participating voter list), (3) counting of the vote, and (4) chain of custody. Reasons for transparency with sources:
All Black Box Voting stories related to election transparency:

Voter list: The voters list is a fundamental component in any voting system. The primary purpose of the voters list is to confirm the eligibility of voters to participate in the election. Each voter should appear on the list only once and the residence of the voter must be correct in order to determine local ballot questions on which he/she is eligible to vote. More Black Box Voting stories related to  voter lists:

Vote suppression: a strategy to influence the outcome of an election by obstructing people from exercising the right to vote. It attempts to reduce the number of voters who might vote against the candidate or proposition advocated by the suppressors. Tactics can range from strategic “human error” to tricks that make voting inconvenient, up to removing names from eligible voter lists and/or intimidation of voters to prevent them from casting ballots. Black Box Voting stories related to vote suppression: ;  Wikipedia:

Vote stuffing: When extra, illegitimate votes are inserted into an election. Detecting ballot-stuffing depends a great deal on how good the record-keeping is. The number of persons on the participating voter list should match the number of ballots cast. One method to stuff ballots is to also stuff the voter list with false names, and arrange to insert votes under those names, either by absentee voting or through a poll worker. A more elegant strategy for ballot stuffing is to examine voter history lists and select legitimate voters who seldom vote, casting ballots under names unlikely to vote. Black Box Voting stories related to vote stuffing: ; Wikipedia: (Ballot stuffing section)

Short Message Service (SMS): a text messaging service component of phone, Web, or mobile communication systems. It uses standardized communications protocols to allow fixed line or mobile phone devices to exchange short text messages. SMS was the most widely used data application, with an estimated 3.5 billion active users, or about 80% of all mobile phone subscribers at the end of 2010. Wikipedia:


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



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