'For those without smart cards, polling officers can help. But it is a very messy, very drawn out process.'
Saturday’s Dhaka city corporation elections were markedly different as they were the first to solely use electronic voting machines (EVMs) and move away from paper ballots. But the rollout was marred by significant complaints from all over the city.
The most common complaint of voters was the challenge posed by EVMs. The machines often failed to register the biometric identity of the voters, forcing many to wait, use their national IDs or smart cards, or use a form authorized by the presiding officers to cast their votes.
In Mirpur’s Sidhanta High School, Presiding Officer Kamal Uddin said only 450 votes were cast out of 1,957 voters in five polling booths, of whom 40 to 50 people had to fill out forms.
Siddika Bulbul, the assistant presiding officer at Uttara’s IES School and College, said: “The difficulties in biometric identification stemmed from either a change in fingerprints due to aging, sweat, or other fluids, preventing clear scanning.
“For those without smart cards, polling officers can help. But it is a very messy, very drawn out process.”
A polling officer at another Mirpur voting centre said they suspected rumours of complicated contingency processes in the event of biometric recognition failure could have dissuaded voters, particularly women.
A voter said EVMs were not suitable for the elderly or people who are not familiar with technology.
A Dhaka Tribune reporter could not cast the vote as the EVM was broken and was asked by the polling officer to come back after 30 minutes.
On the other hand, another polling officer at an Uttara voting centre said their booths had seen around 500 voters, each taking an average of two minutes to vote.
According to those numbers, it would take over 16 hours for them to vote. The polls were open for eight hours only — from 8am to 4pm.
Tabith Awal, BNP’s mayor candidate in Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) elections, went to Manarat International School in Gulshan with his family to vote. His mother Nasrin Fatema spent 30 minutes to cast her vote as the EVM was malfunctioning.
Enter the ‘digital system’
At the AG Church School in New Eskaton, Moghbazar, voters found that their votes were cast as soon as their biometric identification was confirmed, even before they interacted with the EVMs.
Polling agents from the ruling party claimed it was a “digital system” to ease the process for voters. There was a significant presence of unauthorized people inside the polling booths at the time.
At Mohammadpur Girls’ High School, police sub-inspector Shafiqul Islam was found tinkering with the EVMs inside the restricted booths.
Asked about his presence, his hostile reaction compelled the reporter to withdraw and return with other reporters with TV cameras.
Faced by a stronger media presence, the officer performed an about-face and requested the incident be downplayed.
The polling centre at the neighbouring state-run Graphics Arts Institute was shut before the polls ended. The early closing roused suspicion, and upon entering it was found that there was a crowd inside.
A polling officer was seen seemingly using discretionary powers to provide the crowd with access to the registered voter database, casting votes for people who were not even there.
While the EVM master controller displayed female voters, there were only men inside the polling booths. What made this incident unique was that elsewhere actual voters had to authenticate their identification before others swooped in to cast their votes for them, which did not seem to be the case here.
Contacted, the Election Commission’s NID Wing Director General Brig Gen Md Sidul Islam declined to discuss the subject over the phone, and extended an invitation to go over the matter in person afterwards.
Dhaka Tribune reached out to EVM expert and Buet teacher Prof Dr SM Lutful Kabir who also refused to talk about it. Several other experts also turned down queries.
Later in the evening, Election Commissioner Mahbub Talukdar issued a statement in which he praised the EVM for eradicating the opportunity to stuff ballot boxes the night before and for eliminating abnormalities like a 100% voter turnout.
Dhaka Tribune’s Ali Asif Shawon, Arifur Rahman Rabbi, Fahim Reza Shovon, Kamrul Hasan, Md Sanaul Islam Tipu, Mizanur Rahman, and Niaz Morshed contributed to this report.