While the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has officially scheduled the upcoming general elections for Feb. 8, 2024, and issued data on registered voters, uncertainty persists over the number of eligible citizens who remain disenfranchised due to an unwillingness or inability to secure Computerized National Identity Cards (CNICs).
Under law, only individuals with valid CNICs can register to vote in elections, with the most recent data showing 126.98 million of the country’s roughly 240 million population would be eligible to cast their vote on Feb. 8, 2024. The country’s first digital census, conducted last year, yielded a total population, but did not offer any details on the number of citizens under-18. This has raised questions over how many eligible citizens would remain unregistered to vote in the 2024 general elections—despite past elections highlighting how significant this number could prove.
During the 2018 general elections, there was a 4.941 million gap between the reported adult population—110.897 million—and registered voters—105.955 million. Experts have attributed this to large numbers of women; transgenders; flood-affected persons; and persons with disabilities, who struggle to secure CNICs. This is especially concerning in light of last year’s devastating floods, which displaced an estimated 10 million people.
No CNIC, no vote
To ensure the flood-affected don’t lose their right to vote, the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), an organization dedicated to strengthening democracy, is currently operating a project in Sindh aimed at facilitating individuals who lost access to their CNICs. “This project aims to help flood affected marginalized groups, especially women, who lost their CNICs or were unable to make it because of migration,” FAFEN National Coordinator Rashid Chaudhry told the Standard, adding the project was specifically targeting the districts of Ghotki, Larkana, Dadu, Khairpur, Mirpurkhas, and Sanghar.
According to Chaudhry, of the 81,000 women and elderly who had either lost their CNICs during the floods or had never possessed them, over 74,000 women and elderly people have been facilitated thus far.
Another group that struggles with securing CNICs is nomads with no fixed place of residence. One such nomad, 26-year-old Phouto Bheel, told Standard that neither he, nor his siblings, were registered to vote as they were unable to secure CNICs. “My hometown is Mirpurkhas. Both my two elder sisters and I do not have CNICs,” he said. “The reason is that our parents did not obtain CNICs due to our nomadic lifestyle as part of a gypsy tribe. Having parental CNICs is a prerequisite for obtaining our own CNICs,” he said, lamenting that in addition to being disenfranchised, they also faced significant challenges in their daily lives due to a lack of CNICs.
Persons with disabilities, meanwhile, also struggle to obtain CNICs, leaving them out of most voter registration lists. “On average, it takes about three months for a person with a disability to obtain their CNIC. The process also entails a complex PWD [person with disabilities] verification procedure. This has a detrimental impact on PWDs, hindering their registration on the voters’ list,” explained Riaz Hussain Memon, general secretary of the Sindh chapter of the Pakistan Association of the Blind.
“PWDs in Pakistan should receive facilitation in official identity documentation, including CNICs, akin to practices observed elsewhere in the world,” he stressed.
A fourth group with a hampered access to CNICs is Pakistan’s transgender community, whose difficulties have only increased after a Shariat Court ruling from May struck down some sections of the Transgender Act, 2018.
“Before the Shariat Court ruling, transgender individuals were issued CNICs with an ‘X’ gender,” explained Bindiya Rana, a transgender activist and executive director of the Gender Interactive Alliance. “Now, when [members of] the transgender community apply for their CNIC, they are asked to provide a medical certificate, making obtaining a CNIC nearly impossible,” they added, regretting that without a CNIC, overall life in Pakistan was difficult, even beyond exercising their right to vote.
According to Rana, Karachi alone has 18,000 transgender individuals eligible to get CNICs based on age. However, 3,000 lack the CNICs required to do so. “If our community cannot obtain CNICs, they cannot vote. This implies we can’t support our preferred candidates, who we believe may protect our rights,” Rana stressed.
ECP’s accessibility drive
The ECP, tasked with conducting free and fair elections, maintains it strives to ensure all eligible citizens are facilitated in casting their vote, adding that special measures are taken to enhance the participation of marginalized communities, including women, PWDs and transgenders.
According to the electoral body, it has initiated national identity card and voter registration campaigns to decrease the gender gap in the electoral rolls by increasing registration of women as voters, bringing it to 8.3 percent ahead of the 2024 polls, compared to 11.8 percent in 2018.
Further, the ECP claims it has arranged special voting options, including skipping lines, for women; people with disabilities; the elderly; pregnant women; and transgender individuals. It has also directed staff to create a “comfortable” environment for marginalized communities at polling stations. But while such efforts might facilitate the populations that can reach polling stations, it does little to protect those that cannot even prove their identities as Pakistani citizens, denying them a key avenue to elect those they feel are best placed to protect and advance their interests.