The Great Indian Elections conducted under the supervision of the Election Commission of India apparently mark the celebration of a a successful democracy. The tireless effort of the officials in conducting the elections in the world’s largest democracy is praiseworthy. ECI has transformed its methodology since the first general elections of 1952. Earlier the use of the ballot paper was widespread and votes were cast in the ballot box by imprinting the stamp on the candidate’s symbol provided in the ballot paper. To ensure the efficacious working of the election process, several security staff members were deployed in the poll booths to maintain peace and ensure safety. The ballot boxes were taken into the custody of the officials appointed by the ECI and votes were calculated accordingly. However, the conventional system of voting had various impediments to it. The ECI was tasked with tackling the issues of booth capturing, vote tampering, etc. The issue of booth capturing could be resolved with the deployment of additional security forces and enhancing modes of communication to ensure better coordination and by taking adequate security measures. However, the issue of vote tampering was resolved by inducting Electronic Voting Machines that replaced the traditional and outmoded ballot boxes. The move to introduce EVM proved the sound wisdom and efficiency of the members of the ECI to use technology for governance. In the wake of the ongoing tussle over EVMs, a discussion on the utility of the voting device is due.
The Emergence of EVMs
The Election Commission of India has been tasked with performing the most critical function that will ensure the life of this democracy. The task is majorly to conduct elections in India. However, there are deeper responsibilities than just merely conducting the elections. With the technological advancement, ECI in the early 80s had come across the challenges to cope up with these changes. Technology was seen as a powerful weapon to counter the illicit practices jeopardising the sanctity of the commission. In the year 1977, the then Election Commissioner S.L. Shakdhar requested M/s Electronics Corporation of India Limited to study the feasibility of the electronic gadget for conducting elections. By the time the Bharat Electronics Limited introduced an electronic device that was used as a tool for voting in the various unions of the company, the ECI taking these developments into consideration proposed a meeting that included the representatives of ECIL, BEL, Ministry of Law and Justice regarding the use of EVMs for conducting the elections. The meeting concluded with an affirmative decision and in 1982 Kerala became the first State where the EVMs were tested.
The implementation of a policy can only be fruitful with the backing of the Legislative authority. The Government failed to take steps in amending the Representation of People Act, 1951, and Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961.However, the ECI was determined to use EVMs and foreseeing the benefits of its use, issued the directives under Article 324 of the Constitution for the use of EVMs and conducted elections in fifty polling stations using the machines. The strong willed ECI demonstrated its unwavering commitment and determination in making the democratic process a living reality. The technological touch to this process further enhanced its efficiency. However without a law, this selfless effort was open to challenge in the court of law. The Supreme Court of India on an Election Petition filed by A.C. Jose (A. C. Jose vs Sivan Pillai & Ors 1984 AIR 921) held that “EVMs cannot be used in an election unless a specific provision is made in law providing for their use”. This judgment was a wake-up call for the parliamentarians that led to the inclusion of Section 61A in the Representation of People Act, 1951, empowering the commission to use voting machines. However, the empowerment did not remove the apprehensions. India had seen the dawn of technological advancement which gave room to scepticism regarding the viability of these voting machines. The primary reason behind this was India’s lack of expertise in handling such devices. These doubts were removed with the report of the expert committee under the chairmanship of S. Sampath formed after the recommendations of the Electoral Reforms Committee (Dinesh Goswami Committee). The expert committee held a series of meetings with the officials, manufacturers and related people and critically examined its credibility by also conducting laboratory tests. After being satisfied with the results, the committee declared the use of these machines as secure. By then, necessary changes were also made to the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, and all the by-elections were held with the use of the EVMs. A major transformation in the electoral system of this country was witnessed in the general elections of 2004 which were exclusively held by way of the EVMs, and saw the dawn of a reformation in this electoral democracy.
Management of EVMs & its Benefits
The Election Commission of India was aware of the technical glitches associated with the introduction of the voting machines.Mere introduction of technology does not fulfil the purpose, its sounds management determines its actual utility. The credibility of the machines was doubted which was later clarified with the expert recommendations, but a shadow of doubt still loomed as to how these machines will be operated and how it can be safeguarded from the miscreants. The ECI has very carefully allotted the responsibilities. The production team is separate from the software development team. The key responsibility of the software development team is to develop a software that is a one-time programme which cannot be altered or tampered with. This makes the system hugely corruption free. The technical aspects of the EVMs are regularly assessed and before putting the machines to use, these are carefully examined to avoid any malfunctions. The ECI also undertakes careful administrative security measures for the EVMs.In the words of the former Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi “after the poll, the EVMs are sealed with paper seals and packed in plastic boxes, which are also sealed. These EVMs are taken straight to the strong room from the polling stations. The strong room is closed and sealed in the presence of the candidates/their agents and the Commission’s observer. They are permitted to affix their own seals on the locks of the strong room and are allowed to guard it till the counting begins. They are provided facilities for this purpose. In addition, an armed police guard keeps round the clock vigil. Arrangements are also made for video coverage and CCTV coverage of the strong room round the clock. The storage hall so sealed is opened in the presence of the candidates/ their agents and the Commission’s observer on the day of counting”. There is no doubting the effectiveness of the functioning of the Commission. However, the aftermath of the UP elections completely drew a different picture. The allegations of several parties after their defeat about the inefficiency of the EVMs clearly reflected their desperation for power and inability to handle the defeat. However, even in the height of criticism and political gimmick, the ECI did not turn a blind eye. The Commission took cognisance of the matter and called for the inquiry to investigate the validity of these allegations. This gesture provided a different outlook in the course of the pollicisation of this issue. In the wake of this political battle, several national leaders have doubted the credibility of the voting machines and the functioning of the Commission. The ECI’s initiative of instituting the inquiry can be seen as a benchmark example of upholding the democratic principles. However, some leaders have used this issue as a political tool to further their party’s endeavours. Some have demanded to scrap the use of the voting machines in the upcoming elections. We all vociferously raise our opinions against the policy of banning or removing something from the public juncture. The technological advancement in the electoral functioning is now facing severe crisis of existence. The scrapping of the EVMs would take India back to the 20th century, providing open opportunities for the tampering of votes. By the use of EVMs, the issue of tampering is majorly reduced. In an EVM, five votes can be cast in one minute, this exponentially reduces the possibility of rigging as it would be very time consuming for the booth capturers and the possibility of getting caught would increase simultaneously. An EVM reduces time which is usually channelized in undertaking other administrative functions. The manual work of counting raises the chance of human error, but machines provide nearly accurate results. Much paper is saved, so it can said to be environment-friendly. The technological advancement provides much transparency that will ensure better governance. The records are maintained so that any wilful conduct of altering it would be caught. These advantages must not be underestimated by our political elite. Any functioning is at the expense of the public exchequer, so going backwards would only lead to a more expensive process.
If there are loopholes in the functioning of the EVMs, then it must be properly examined and sound decisions should be taken after careful deliberations. Till now, no such allegations have been proved so it must be left upon the wisdom of the commission to undertake proper inquiries and make the corrections by laying down adequate guidelines fulfilling the demands and make it more regularised. However, India is accelerating fast in the age of technological advancement and we must strive to make it more advanced and efficient and spread across the globe our efficiency in managing and facilitating elections, to reap its benefits. In the words of the Chief Election Commissioner of Bhutan:
“if we had to learn anything about managing and conducting elections, we had to look no further beyond India which has successfully managed electoral activities over the span of over 60 years. India, being the world’s largest democracy, has had unwavering success in conducting democratic elections. The task of deploying thousands of officers and millions of EVMs and conducting an election of unquestionable integrity is a major accomplishment for any democratic nation”.