The Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) are said to have been first used in 1982 for the North Paravur Assembly by-election in Kerala, and for a limited number of polling stations. This equipment was approved for wider use by the Election Commission of India in technical collaboration with Bharat Electronics Limited and Electronics Corporation of India in 1989. But EVMs made their universal debut in the 1999 parliamentary elections after extensive consultations with stakeholders and have since become an integral, even indispensable, part of India’s electoral system.
Political parties across the spectrum have questioned the credibility and efficacy of EVMs. The general outcry reached its crescendo lately with a section of the political class demanding their replacement with the earlier system of paper ballots. While there are a large number of countries, including most of the developed ones which still use paper ballots for voting, India was one of the few countries which introduced EVMs to get over the multiple problems associated with the previous system of voting.
The introduction of EVMs saved huge costs involved in production and printing of crores of ballot papers, their transportation and storage. It was a very eco-friendly move that saved thousands of trees, which used to be hacked for the paper. The use of EVMs can save an estimated 10,000 tonnes of ballot paper before every general election and many times more whenever an Assembly or local body election is held. Voting and counting have become faster and there has been a substantial reduction in the number of counting personnel and the remuneration that is paid to them. Indubitably, the people have found it easier to exercise their franchise through EVMs rather than the ballot paper system.
EVMs are easier to transport and store because of their light weight and portability. They are also protected against the elements as they are wrapped with polypropylene. The shelf-life of these EVMs is approximately 15 years.
The EVM stores the result in its memory before the same is cleared manually. Its powering system is efficiently designed as the power-pack is required only to activate the EVMs at the time of polling and counting. The same could be switched off conveniently at the end of polling.
After the rulings of Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court and the demands from some political parties, the Election Commission has decided to introduce the voter-verified paper audit trail or VVPAT to further enhance the confidence of the stakeholders in the authenticity and effectiveness of EVMs. The system allows a voter to ensure that the vote cast can be verified to have been cast in favour of the desired candidate.
Besides, there is enough scope provided to individual candidates, political parties and any other stakeholder to verify the accuracy, authenticity and reliability of an EVM during the three-time commissioning of these machines preceding the actual polling. Before these commissioning sessions, during which the EVMs are checked for defects and prepared for their use at respective polling stations, multiple rounds of meetings and training sessions are organised for all the stakeholders for explaining the various nuances of polling through EVMs where the booth level assistants (BLAs) for political parties apart from their senior representatives and office-bearers are present.
Conducted under foolproof security, close circuit TV and videography, the EVM preparation and commissioning are done very meticulously and diligently and to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders. The commissioning schedule and protocol are designed to ensure that no malfunctioning EVMs are used on the day of actual polling. Every commissioned EVM goes through multiple checks and trials to the full satisfaction of the contesting candidates and authorised representatives of recognised political parties before being accepted for use. Every EVM also has to undergo a Mock Poll with a mandatory number of votes and for any number of votes for a certain percentage of randomly picked EVMs as desired by the stakeholders. After the commissioning of EVMs, they are stored in pre-sanitized Strong Rooms amidst three-tier security cordons.
Assuming that things could still go wrong despite these checks and controls, a further opportunity is afforded to the contesting candidates or their polling agents present in the respective polling booths. Before the start of actual polling, another Mock Poll is held under the supervision of the Presiding Officer (PRO) to assure oneself against any foul play or tampering of the EVM.
A Mock Poll certificate is signed by the PRO with polling agents of contesting candidates appending their signatures. The Election Observers, polling officials and other stakeholders including polling agents or contesting candidates or their authorised representatives have full liberty to check the functioning of EVMs from time to time while voting is in progress. VVPAT, as introduced recently, further enhances the authenticity and credibility of the EVMs.
The system is designed to guard against any suspected foul play before, during and after the voting. The contesting candidates or their representatives are given full freedom to satisfy themselves of the genuineness of the entire process or the effectiveness of the EVMs before the votes are counted. In the interim, the EVMs are kept in the Strong Room before being taken out for the counting amidst very tight security and electronic surveillance. The counting protocol is also meticulously planned and structured to pre-empt any negative manoeuvring.
The entire system is intricately designed to ensure a free and fair poll to the full satisfaction of all the stakeholders. In the context of the checks that are in place, it is really very unfortunate to hear of the putative loss of confidence of a section of our political class in matters relating to the effectiveness of the tried and tested EVMs. As someone who has been associated with the conduct of many parliamentary, Assembly and local body elections and has seen the functioning of these EVMs at close quarters, this is really quite distressing. More so because the Election Commission has afforded opportunities to all stakeholders to confirm their misgivings over tampering.
The political class needs to realise that the alternative to the EVMs does not inspire confidence at all. If one’s car goes out of order or pollutes, that does not mean we should go back to the bullock cart. Similarly, the alternative to the EVMs can never be the ballot paper system which is very cumbersome, costly and retrograde. There is scope for the snatching of ballot boxes, even bogus voting. The EVM has eliminated both.
The equipment can be made still more effective if the identity of the voter is verified biometrically. This can be done by grafting the voter’s individual biometric data into the elector’s photo-identity cards (EPICs) to be utilized as a voter-identifying tool to further reinforce and strengthen the system. One is sure that our democratic polity will come out of this trust deficit in EVMs through further dialogue and discussion, but any thought of reverting to the ballot paper system will be a retrograde move.
The writer is an IAS officer, currently posted as the Commissioner of School Education, Govt of West Bengal. The views are personal and don’t reflect those of the Government.