Electronic voting machines Credit: File image

Use of technology, which was once seen as a panacea for election-related problems, is increasingly being viewed as potentially a source, rather than the solution, for the problems weakening the integrity and credibility in the election process in India. But are our concerns a bit exaggerated and unfounded given how it has been virtually impossible, beyond allegations, to prove that the EVMs can be or have been manipulated?

The first three phases of elections to the 17th Lok Sabha have once again brought us back to the question of whether the use of EVMs in India needs a proper review and setting in place some guidelines so that at least the voters’ confidence in the electoral process is not shaken. This irrespective of what political parties may be thinking right now, perhaps continuing to look for loopholes and scapegoats. After all, no one wants to end up on the losing side.

The most recent controversy over the malfunction of the EVM which seemed to provide fresh ammunitions to a section of the news media, and definitely a reason to many other others to look deeper and beyond the realms of politics, is the concern, and a very genuine one at that, expressed by former Assam director general of police (DGP) Harekrishna Deka.

Soon after voting Deka claimed that his vote was wrongly registered by the machine. Following his statements given to local media in Guwahati, the chief electoral officer (CEO) of Assam Mukesh Sahu said that the former DG had every right to lodge a protest, and he could do so in form number 49 (MA) by declaring the situation to the presiding officer provided he is ready to also bear the consequences of a false claim. The rules under section 49 (MA) of the conduct of election (Amendment) Rules, 2013 says that if a complaint is found to be false, after a test vote is conducted by the complainant, the voter would be liable to six months in jail and would have to pay a fine of Rs 1,000.

add corrections of EVM malfunction.”

Former Assam DGP Harekrishna Deka has urged the Election Commission to take strong note of EVM snags

The concerns aired by the former Assam police chief certainly merits a dispassionate discussion especially as the concerned subject is of fundamental importance to all citizens that are participants in a democratic exercise like voting. While, his apprehensions about the rather intimidating provision in the process of filing a formal complaint makes great sense, in our social, economic and political settings, there are other more technical and democratic issues that need to be factored in to be able to arrive a more comprehensive understanding of what is actually wrong and needs to be addressed by all and sundry.

The process of voting is the same democratic right for all electorates and therefore, it is extremely important to ensure that a complain, does not become the cause of disruption of that process which could then tantamount to a violation of the rights of others.

“Every voter comes to the polling station and stands in the line to be able to cast his or her franchise without any hassle and disruption, and that is a right that everyone wants,” said Nayanjoyti Bhuyan, a member of Coordination Committee for Participation in Democracy (CCPID), Northeast. “Therefore, we like it or not there must be a mechanism.”

A mechanism though is necessary, it could do without intimidating voters, who out of fear may not want to challenge the system. Thus, as has been suggested by many, “voters should not be deterred from filing complains when they find false VVPAT displays.” In other words, the removal of such a clause or decriminalization of the provision. This could perhaps encourage voters to register their complaints with the presiding officer of a polling station where such malfunctions are reported.

However, that may not be enough. “Let us imagine a situation where a polling station has three such complaints in a day, ideally the voting process would have to be disrupted three different times. Even after it is found, that the complaint is wrong, the voter is let off and this goes on. This would open the floodgates for random complains and just about every suspecting voter wanting to stall the process of voting could do so, setting a dangerous trend in motion,” said CCPID member Bhuyan. “The result of this would be causing immense hardship and harassment to the voters that would have stood in a queue for longs hours,” he added.

Therefore, a way forward would be to allow for a process of registration of complaints that does not criminalise a person, but surely has provisions of some form of penalization. Making the complainant owing up for his or her action is not asking for too much surely, especially where the question of something as sensitive as a vote is concerned. “I have no right to disrupt the process of democracy, with my complaint outside of a mechanism that has been set up to cater to everyone’s needs and provide a sense of equality,” Bhuyan reiterated.

What if the election commission makes the process free of any penalty and allows just about any voter to stop polling midway following claims of wrong registration of votes by the machine? And if after a test vote the machine is found to work correctly, would the voter be satisfied and allow the process to go on without disruption? The answer to these questions would not be easy to find, especially as everything has been so politically coloured for the right or the wrong reasons.

But if these questions don’t’ have any one answer, especially so not in the affirmative, then the options available are very less, the most plausible being to revert to the set guidelines under the existing legal framework where the voter has to be absolutely sure of what he/she saw in the VVPAT display before the paper drops into the box.

In that case, the onus of having to provide a “infallible,” machine during the polls is on the ECI, and should it be otherwise than they should be made to answer. If the test vote is actually found to go another party then this cannot be treated as “mere malfunction,” and the ECI has some answering to do and the CEO of the State made to face some consequences. “If the election authorities can penalize a complainant for what maybe a genuine complaint (but not show as one during a test run) then the former must be made to answer where a process appears to be rigged and not a case of mere malfunction,” opined senior journalist Anup Sharma.

Of course, there could be many solutions like allowing the voter to physically the paper trail after the vote is cast. Also, where the voter insists that he has vote has been wrongly recorded and his voting rights stand violated even after the test vote, then a provision could be inserted to retrieve the last paper slip from the box or if that process is too difficult given that it would have mixed up with other slips, a system of duplication of paper trails can be introduced where the slips are stalked in a systematic manner and kept like that until the end of the polls. Once the polling is over the box where duplicates are recorded can be mixed up thoroughly in the presence of political party agents to avoid any wrongdoing. In some countries like the Philippines which automated its elections in 2010, there are discussions underway on if there should be voter’s receipt in addition to the VVPAT, but would that also encourage vote buying and so forth.

Undoubtedly, over the years the Indian election authorities have been arguing to defend its “infallible,” position on the machine, at least in so far as the credibility of the machines are concerned. For instance, the fact that the machine can’t be tampered with by hackers as is it not connected to the internet, or the debunking of the BBC report which had reported that an American had succeeded in hacking the EVM. An NDTV of 2017 report had quoted the ECI on the question on manipulating the EVM at the manufacturing stage to record all votes (or a high proportion of votes) for one candidate, as “simply meaningless.”

The ECI in its response had said that “nobody knows what order the candidates or parties will be listed on the EVM till after the last date of withdrawing nomination papers and that meant the order of buttons is known for about two weeks – far too little time to manipulate the buttons.” It had also said that specific EVMs are assigned to constituencies in a randomized matter pretty late in the day, and in the presence of representatives of all parties. “So, if you think your party will be Button One – and somehow (goodness knows how), you get the votes of other buttons transferred to Button One, the Election Commission could end up listing another candidate against Button One and you would be helping your competitor.”

There still remains many questions, and less answers. But this is only natural when a process of automation (like that in India) is still young and there surely will be areas of concern and will resonate in different ways by different people. Like an academic friend from Guwahati University said, “after all a machine is a machine.” But going forward, the need to look at solutions that strengthens the use of the EVMs to make the process of democratic elections more transparent, free and credible, must be given topmost importance. Systems must be devised to encourage and not discourage voters to participate in improving the system.

(The writer is a senior journalist from Northeast India and director of Social Actions for New Alternatives, which works on clean elections and participatory governance in India. He has also spent over a decade studying electoral processes and supporting clean elections in Asia and other parts of the globe)

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