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Above: Darul Aqsha (right) at a local polling station in Jakarta, Indonesia

By Asif Ullah Khan

At a time when the clamour for going back to the old ballot system is increasing in India due to allegations of faulty and ‘rigged’ electronic voting machines (EVMS), death of more than 270 Indonesian election staff in fatigue-related illnesses has triggered a debate of sorts for shifting to electronic voting. The reason for such high number of deaths is that for the first time in the electoral history of Indonesia which has a population of 260 million people, the General Elections Commission (KPU) decided combine the April 17 elections presidential vote with national and regional parliamentary ones with a view to cutting the cost.   But this created an enormous burden on the polling staff as 80 percent of the total 193 million voters cast their vote in more than 800,000 polling stations and each voter had to punch up to five ballot papers.  Although KPU recruited more than 7.2 million people to manage the polling stations, the process of counting votes was arduous, stressful and time consuming. In some cases, polling staff had to work continuously for 48 hours even after people had cast their vote.

This is the reason why the election watchdogs have called for the review of the present electoral system. The Jakarta Post in its editorial ‘Electoral solutions’ has called for moving from the manual voting to e-voting, which it says will boost the credibility of the elections, minimize vote rigging and save money, time and energy. Sapto Waluyo, executive director of the Centre for Indonesian Reform (CIR), says: “Based on the poor practice of simultaneous elections in Indonesia, the idea of e-voting has become more relevant. The digital election system will simplify and mitigate the overwork of the officers. Besides that, it will accelerate the process and increase political certainty.”

He added that actually the Indonesian Board of Sciences (LIPI) has proposed an e-voting system a long time ago. The proposal was also supported by the Agency for the Research and Application of Technology (BBPT). In fact, in some regions e-voting was tested for the election of village heads and local regional heads.”Proper IT infrastructure must be in place for the implementation of trusted e-voting. First, valid population data and each voter must have a single ID,” he says.

It must been mentioned that during the election campaign,  Prabowo Subianto, the main challenger to President Joko Widodo had alleged that that 17.5 million names on the electoral roll shared just three birth dates – January 1, July 1 and December 31. Sapto says: “This is a big problem in Indonesia and the issue of ghost voters must be addressed.”

As far as electronic voting is concerned, Sapto is of the view that the urban and rural areas that have already connected to internet, the e-voting machine can be immediately implemented. So that the officers only supervise that machines are working properly and well. In this case, no voters will face or experience difficulties and nobody will be able to commit fraud. The vote count results can be directly recapitulated at the booth voting and sent to the data center.

For rural areas that have not been connected to internet and even there is no electricity, Sapto says the vote count can be done manually. Then, the results of the voter can be sent to the nearest electoral office (with internet-connected facility in village) to be recapitulated and sent to the data center.

He said in addition to adequate IT infrastructure, Indonesia needs honest, professional and responsible officers. Because they are the ones who run the e-voting machine and make sure that the democratic process takes place as free and fair.

Sapto says: “Now is the time for Indonesia to implement digital technology in the practice of democracy, in order to avoid national disaster (i.e. death of officers), and to improve the quality of democracy and political certainty as well. With an election budget of IDR 24.5 trillion (USD 1.7 billion), a digital voting system is a rational choice. In fact, it can save the state budget. The remaining funds can be used to increase public awareness and good facilities for officers.”

Darul Aqsha, who worked as a member of one of the polling station working committees (KPPS) in one of the local areas in Jakarta, has described the conditions at polling booths as inhuman. “We had started working a night before the polling day as we had to complete the paper work and logistics as people had started queuing outside polling station before dawn. It was a marathon work from 7am to 5am the following morning. Some even worked until noon the next day and that too with little break or without it,” said Darul.

He said that the stress and fatigue led to many road accident deaths. Other were caused by respiratory problems, irregular food consumption, hypertension, stroke and drinking locally brewed liquor. In some cases, there were reports of suicides also.”Fortunately, only two officers at our polling station fell sick. However, I think the election system is inhuman and needs to be reviewed. People have already started raising their voice against this system.  “Even political figures like Sandiaga Uno, the vice-presidential pick of challenger Prabowo Subianto has proposed that e-voting should be used in the next election,” Darul concluded.

Primastuti Handayani, one of the managing editors of The Jakarta Post, says death of so many election staff is really tragic and “we should really learn a valuable lesson from it.” “It was our first simultaneous election and definitely the manual counting process was very exhausting. They had to submit health check report prior to the election but the real condition during the ballot and the manual counting was apparently too overwhelming for dozens of the volunteers. I think the government and lawmakers must evaluate thoroughly on the simultaneous elections whether we will do it again or not.”

Darul said: “Even Constitutional Court Chief Justice Anwar Usman has acknowledged that the new system was too complicated and opened the door for it to be challenged in court. He felt guilty because he took part in the judicial review petition, which became the basis of the simultaneous elections. He admitted that the elections on April 17 had been the most complex in the world and far more difficult than the ones held in the United States. This is the reason why calls for re-evaluation of simultaneous presidential and legislative election system and moving to e-voting are getting louder. ”

Hadi Mahmud, a Jakarta-based digital marketing professional, said: “I am all for e-voting as long as the system is secure and robust because the last thing you want is a hacker rigging the votes. More importantly, it may go some way in preventing incidents like deaths of election officials. Yes, it was the world’s largest single day election and Indonesians are very proud of that. However, more preparations could’ve been done beforehand, such as increasing election staff to prevent burnout and deaths.”

Taking the case of e-voting further, Primastuti says: “If the e-voting has been running successfully in India, which is the world’s largest democracy, why can this be implemented in Indonesia. We can save time, money and the manpower used in conducting elections can used for more productive work.”

—The Author is a is a former deputy managing editor of The Brunei Times

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