At the FAME seminar on electoral reforms last Sunday, chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi recalled the instance of a candidate who lost by one vote in the 2008 Rajasthan assembly elections. The candidate was C.P. Joshi, the then Congress state president and present rural development minister in the UPA government at the Centre. At the request of C.P. Joshi, a recount of postal ballots (less than 200 hundred) was ordered and a re-tabulation of the votes was done on the EVMs. Yet, the difference was the same one vote and Joshi was declared lost.
While Quraishi emphasizes Joshi’s case to say that the counting of votes in our elections is fair, the reality is that this “recount” of votes cannot be considered to be a proper recount at all. This amounted to merely checking if any clerical errors were made in totaling the votes polled in different EVMs as the results are noted from the electronic display of the voting machines.
Joshi conceded defeat merely relying on the electronic counts. He had little choice but to concede. At best, he could have gone in for an election petition that would take several years to sort out. What if some electronic voting machine(s) in the constituency had misrecorded votes due to some technical glitch or manipulation? It could be nobody’s case that all these machines are error free, unless you are willing to believe the “mythical” qualities attributed to the Indian EVMs.
This was the rationale behind the landmark judgment of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany in March, 2009 which held the use of electronic voting machines unconstitutional. The Court said that it is not sufficient to say that the voting data is stored in the voting machine and an electronic display or printout is possible, and that election officials are carrying out necessary tests and vouching for the security and technical integrity of electronic voting machines. (THIS WHAT THE ECI IS PROMISING US IN BIHAR ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS.) The Court ruled that EVMs are unconstitutional so long as there was no provision for an additional verifiable physical record of every vote cast.
The Election Commission’s refrain is we are not bound by the judgment of Federal Constitutional court of Germany. They are right but the principles enunciated by the German court are unexceptionable and universally applicable. None of the challenges to the EVMs in the Supreme Court of India so far have been mounted on these lines but such litigation on the constitutionality of Indian EVMs is inevitable if the system is not reformed in the near future.
As no physical verifiable record of votes cast in elections was available in case of C.P. Joshi’s election, doubts will always remain if C.P. Joshi had indeed lost the election (by one vote or more votes) or won it.
Ironically, the electronic voting machines have rendered candidates totally powerless and made the officials and agencies involved in the conduct of elections supremely powerful. If the electronic count shows that a candidate has lost, that is to be taken as gospel truth. Voting machines have acquired the sort of “sovereign” power that only voters should enjoy in a true democracy. What would you call it but a travesty of democracy where the people are relegated to the background and the unverifiable machine records (which can be wrong, manipulated) become the sole basis for declaring elected representatives?
The whole world has moved towards reliable and publicly verifiable elections so that meaningful recounts can be conducted. This is possible by implementing VVPAT system. VVPAT refers to a system where by the voting machines produce a paper record (a print out) of every single vote cast by the voters on the voting machines. After casting the vote on the EVM, the voter will examine the physical print out for its accuracy and if satisfied that there is no discrepancy, deposit the vote in a ballot box. This would ensure that even if the machine is manipulated or misbehaves, you have the paper record to establish the real outcome.
Most political parties in the country are demanding VVPAT. Implementation of VVPAT would mean additional costs but it would offer verifiability of votes cast and make election results more credible.
Is the cost a major impediment in implementing VVPAT? Apparently not. If we can spend over Rs. 30,000 crores for organizing commonwealth games in a shoddy manner, can we not spend a fraction of that cost to hold credible and verifiable elections?
The problem is not of the costs involved. It is the resistance of the officialdom to reform. The bureaucracy loves the EVMs because they are convenient, involve less drudgery, limited accountability and no disputes at all. Introduction of VVPAT will end this dream run.
Should India continue with an opaque, non-transparent voting system just because it suits its election administrators? Political parties have realized the limitations and are rearing to seek voting system reform. Rather than see this as a problem on its hands or a challenge to its authority, the Election Commission of India must seize the initiative at the proposed all-party meeting to announce a slew of reforms to make Indian elections totally transparent, publicly verifiable such that losers like C.P. Joshi can have as much trust in election results as the winners.
After all, the winners will always be convinced that they have won. A credible system is one which convinces the losers too that they have lost.
I can be reached at nrao@indianEVM.com