Mobile Voting Through Missed Calls Can Transform Democracy in Pakistan

By Jawwad Jafri

For over five decades, elections in Pakistan have been marred by violence, malpractice and allegations of fraud. There are inexplicable delays in announcing the results and in many instances, complaints of duplicate and unaccountable votes. The experiments with electronic ink have also resulted in very limited success making the verification of the votes even more dubious.

To top it all, the turnout on the Election Day has never been overwhelming. A large part of our population remains at home on Election Day fearing unrest at the polling stations. A lot of people from rural areas and semi urban areas are out of their constituency to work in larger cities and miss out on the chance to vote for their areas as it is impractical to travel and spend so much money to vote.

But what if we can come up with a way to include every Pakistani — or at least majority of the nation — in the voting process without the need to leave their home?

Is there a way which is equally accessible and understandable to everyone in the country? The answer lies in a common mobile device that we access every day.

In an international environment, it would have been much easier to create an app for people to vote but Pakistan has some unique challenges.

The challenge is to come up with a voting solution that is universal and doable for every Pakistani

Firstly, the low smartphone penetration in Pakistan rules out the use of mobile apps to reach the masses. According to reports, less than 30% of Pakistanis own a smartphone. The market is still extremely dependent on feature phones with nearly 70% of users still accessing the networks through a dumb phone.

Secondly, with a low literacy rate, the ability to send and receive SMS is not universal. Pakistanis send billions of SMS’s every year but the fact is that not all 120 million people can read or write them. A lot of domestic workers are unable to read these SMS messages even if they are in the national language. This makes SMS voting limited to only those who can read and compose SMS messages.

The universal ability that every mobile user has is to dial a number. Regardless of the phone they are carrying or their literacy level, a phone owner knows how to dial a number. So how can we use this ability to carry out a nationwide electoral voting.

Using Missed Calls for National Elections

There are solutions available in the market that work based on missed calls. A missed call is a free and convenient way in which people communicate with each other. What if we can use the same missed call for National Elections?

Just in case if you are thinking that IVR solutions can perform better in this scenario, IVR isn’t simpler than missed calls and considering that we are trying to come up with a solution for masses, the easier the better.

Imagine every candidate having a unique number (for example 0800-33-241) that  voters have to call to cast votes. This number will be promoted on every banner and promotional material that the candidate uses to market themselves in the election.

On the election day, every constituent who wants to vote can just give a missed call to the candidate’s number to vote. This means that the voter does not have to go out of their house to vote. There is no cost to the voter and the whole process takes less than 3 seconds to complete.

The call will be automatically disconnected and the voter would receive a confirmation message that his/her vote has been counted.

In addition, the voting can be carried out in real time. Press, media, public everyone will have access to live changes in the voting patterns. At any instant during the campaign, the position of rival candidates can be viewed by anyone on internet including local and international organizations providing complete transparency of results.

For election commission, every vote would be auditable. The election commission can track for any candidate, when the vote was casted and who casted the vote. Any party challenging the result can be given the access to this data for maintaining complete impartiality and transparency of results.

Here’s a rough Proposed Mechanism

  • Each and every SIM in Pakistan is bio-metrically verified and is associated with an individual
  • More than 60% Pakistanis have at least one SIM registered against their CNICs
  • Making a missed call from any mobile number will register owner’s CNIC as a voter
  • Voter’s CNIC can be cross-checked with NADRA for validity of CNIC (such as if person is even alive or not
  • Voter’s CNIC can also be cross-checked with Election Commission data for validity of vote
  • Any duplication can be removed if an individual makes call from more than one number that are both registered against him/her

By adopting missed calls as voting mechanism, a country like Pakistan can transform the participation of its constituents in the elections and free the individuals from security concerns that hamper their participation. In addition, this would also help in massively bringing down the cost of conducting an election throughout the country as no physical setup would be required.

  • good piece of writing. But this is not going to work in PK for many reason…many areas women/girls are not even allowed to answer phone.
    Now with smart phones with finger scanner might work …not many people have them yet but if EC allows them hopefully in next 20 years it will be possible.

  • Great idea, but in a democracy all votes are casted anonymously after verification of a person. This means you can not track which person voted for whom after a vote is casted. This is by design so that noone can be discriminated for their political affiliation. That is one point that makes this impractical.

    • Agreed. That is why that data is only available to election commission. Even in electronic voting, the backend always has that information. It is just not publicly available even to the winning parties but maybe accessed for any auditing or verification purpose.

  • This solution has so many glitches

    1. Miss Call will only work if we allow multiple channels on same number. Now just imaging every constituency have Lacs of voters so it means you must have minimum thousands of channels for each number which is a lot of cost and time taking process on operator end even then there are high chances you get number busy in first few hours after Voting time started and then after couple of busy calls you might not ring back and your vote waited

    2. Anyone can jam this system by making systematic frequent calls again and again

    3. Same number can mis call to any number even if he lives other city or constituency of Pakistan so you can’t run duplicate checking live and if you are suggesting to show live results on internet then you might see higher numbers but at the end after removing duplicates you might see really less numbers and in this case voters will start crying over transparency.

    4. all system must be connected to central software which needs to be further connected to all numbers with thousands of channels which will choke the system.

    As Telecom Professional technically it’s not a viable solution only sounds good!

    • Thanks for your feedback Usman.

      We definitely need multiple channels but miss call systems work on data channels. Since a miss call does not consume any data we can create virtually unlimited channels for each candidate. Also, the whole process takes less than a second so the channel is free instantly in a vote.
      We have already implemented a massive live campaign in which all this information was checked in real time and we display only the unique miss calls not the over all missed call to display the real picture.
      Any system that will cater to 200 million pakistanis will definitely be resource intensive, however, this resource requirement is significantly less than the resources required to setup election offices in every constituency, recruiting and training specialized staff, deploying security etc

      • Thanks for your response jawwad

        I disagree with your opinion when you says Miss Call runs on Data Channels. You need to understand Miss Call itself is nothing its like a normal Voice Call but when you receive Call you disconnect it and store the data of that number it might take 1 second to disconnect but Call path from mobile handset to your system takes 3-5 Seconds depending on Signal Strength and load on your system!

        Now imagine if 1 call needs 3-5 Seconds over all time to register Vote then how many Channels do you need to cater these in 1 constituency where you expect 1 Lac to 4 Lac Voters. You can’t create virtually unlimited Channels in VOICE System you can test it if your allowed Channels are 2 for 1 number then 3rd person who will try to call same time will get busy Tone and will not be able to Cast Vote.

        When you say you have tested it on live campaign you didnt note down following important factors

        1. Each representative need unique number. Each Constituency can have 30 – 50 Candidates. Each Number needs hundreds of channels to support Miss Call. So let’s do rough calculation as follows:

        50 Candidates X 1 Unique Number X 100 Channels for Each Number = 5000 Channels Parallel Data Flowing in to your system DB on each call for 1 Constituency.

        Now there are 1000+ MPA and nearly 300 MNA Constituencies.
        5000 X 1000 = 5 Million
        5000 X 300 = 1.5 Million
        Total = 6.5 Million

        So expect to have system which can handle 6.5 Million Entries each time and which can handle 6.5 Million Channels to make perfect Election System! i doubted any Operator can handle this kind of volume even if it’s for miss call purposes and keep in mind here i m talking about perfect situation where you expect everyone to make just 1 call you can’t ignore those who can make continuous calls again and again to knock down the system!

        Last but most importantly you can’t take risk of running a system on Election Day which you can’t test with actual live Testing!

        I hope i have clarified the situation in more detail so everyone can analyze the corns of this system.

        • even if all these technical stuff is taken care off how would you ensure that a mobile user who is making the miss call is the real voter and or is not being forced to vote by someone. Out of the box thinking is good but the box itself has to have some logic. Comparatively Its much easier to utilize 70+ plus biometric devices deployed by telcos for voting as they use the IP instead of the voice network. But you cannot again deploy 70,000 presiding officers on each machine to ensure no one is being forced. the solution has to be practical, logical and acceptable to all especially the khuptan. I doubt he will accept any system unless and until that gives him the PMship in a plate. best for him lets get the voting done on FB and announce the results on tweeter. :)

      • While i think idea has potential, please keep in mind that you will still need election booths to make sure those without phones can also cast votes. So cost wise you will not be saving but rather spending. more.

  • 1. Mobiles can be stolen
    2. Maybe feudal lord collects everyone’s smartphones before voting
    3. Not to mention many can’t read and dial phone numbers
    4. People may be forced to get help from someone and maybe that someone fools them

    • So next time Khuptan will be giving dharna in front of Telco HQs since their networks got chocked and at one time only one person was able connect the call. And to add injury to the insult the Telcos diverted all calls to the PMLN numbers. I wish propakistani do some sanity check on the quality of articles being published.

  • lol … I am still getting Benazir Income Support Messages, spam advertisement messages and don’t forget the ‘ Please easy load 20 rupees to my no, I will return the money I am saba ‘ message.

    So how can you be sure that sims are registered to their user’s CNIC and the biggest loophole of someone taking my mobile and making call to his own representative without my consent.

    Votes are always annonymous for the voters own protection.

  • Interesting use of phones but won’t that jam the networks entirely? I mean, the networks get jammed when there’s an earthquake; what will happen when everyone is voting using their phones? PS, won’t you have to bring in a private entity i.e. the mobile operators for something so sensitive and can they even be trusted?

  • Excellent suggestion. Out of the box solution is the answer to our voting problem. Existing primitive method must be replaced by this smart solution using even dumb phones. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • What is the insurance that call is made by same person who owns the sim? I can take hold of any person’s phone & vote in his/her place, maybe without the owner’s permission or even knowledge?

  • Great idea but i think you don’t know about ground reality.. Wadera system is powerful, they can also get data from election commision n this time they can set score with proof, who votes who, which is currently we have system is fine because they cant figure out who vote who..

  • well idea is great. what about the jurisdiction part and the constituency control.

    With a population of 180+ million, How do we get the processing power that may keep the voting system running with checks for duplication and the Constituency Control.

    Practically viable, had we have a some presidential system.

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