In the wake of criticism over the past two years and unanimous demand by political parties for election reform, the ECI was under pressure to reform the voting system to restore the confidence of the public and the political class. But to the credit of the Election Commission under Chief Election Commissioner Dr. S.Y. Quraishi, it has not only initiated reform efforts in the form of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system but has done it enthusiastically.
Today, to test the viability of the newly developed Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system, a filed trial was carried out in six districts including some remote and difficult terrain locations in different parts of the country. In each district, the filed trial was carried out in 36 polling stations and in each polling station, up to 1000 voters were mobilized to cast votes on the EVMs to test the ruggedness and accuracy of the operation of the printers in extreme locations.
The field trial, which I personally witnessed in East Delhi where it was tested in 36 polling stations of Vishwasnagar assembly constituency, was by and large successful. Scores of voters and political party representatives I have spoken to at different polling stations were quite satisfied with the new system which gave them a proof that their vote had been delivered correctly to the candidate for whom they voted.
Save a couple of exceptions out of these 36 polling stations where the printers malfunctioned – at one place due to faulty insertion of printer roll and at another due to operational problems – the printers worked perfectly and voters were almost unanimous that this system was definitely superior to the paperless EVMs as it afforded them a chance to verify their vote. It was the near unanimous view of most of the participants in the field trial. The final results of our independent research in Delhi and that the Election Commission has commissioned in all districts would vindicate this assessment.
As I visited many possible stations, I ran into two Election Commissioners V.S. Sampath and H.S. Brahma who visited different polling stations in East Delhi for a first hand experience of the field trial along with Alok Shukla, deputy election commissioner and A.K. Agarwala, professor of IIT, Delhi. All of them seemed visibly pleased to get positive feedback from the voters about the new system.
Personally for me and many of us who have been ardent critics of paperless EVMs, we have reason to be satisfied as we are in the process of making a quantum leap in election transparency and verifiability that are hallmarks of any genuine electoral democracy.
Even as I gloat over the progress, a word of caution is in order. The present VVPAT solution does not address many likely situations in real elections. For instance, what does a poll official do if there is a mismatch between the vote cast on the EVM and the printout that it delivers? What if some miscreants create trouble saying that there is a discrepancy even when none exists. These situations, which may occur in real elections, have no remedy in the present solution. We have some ideas and will engage with the ECI and civil society representatives to explore workable solutions. These challenges are not insurmountable but nevertheless need solutions that may even require some design changes.
Further, there are questions relating to auditing, recounting for which guidelines need to be evolved. Care is needed to implement the VVPAT regime such that it addresses the present concerns rather than throw up a newer set of problems, as many fear and some countries have experienced.
Poll officials worried
While everyone seemed happy with the new system, officials involved in the conduct of elections were visibly unhappy. Tension was writ large on their faces, more so in polling stations where open printers were tested where the printout emerging from the printer had to be collected by the voter and deposited in ballot boxes. One official was keeping a close watch on the printout (sometimes standing next to the voter inside the voting compartment) so that no one takes it away from the polling booth as these votes will be counted to match with the electronic result. In a real election, this would constitute a breach and no official can afford do this.
Officials manning polling stations with closed printers (where a printout becomes visible behind a screen and gets dropped after a few seconds) were relatively unruffled as they did not need to keep a check on the printouts.
One thing that is troubling all the officials is the counting of votes. As the printouts are very small (they are of the same width as ATM slips and of the same length in the case of BEL and smaller in length in case of ECIL) and are made of very thin thermal paper, they had serious problems in counting them during training that was imparted to them. The paper is so light weight that it will fly away even if you operate a ceiling fan at moderate speed. More than all this, the drudgery of counting paper is making them jittery. They have had it so good with paperless EVMs and resent manual counting of ballots. Counting scheduled for 25th July will throw up a lot of these problems.
May be it is too early to announce the final verdict but the field trial clearly marks a good beginning. The way forward is to quickly review, fix all the problems and implement the VVPAT system in real elections soon. Some by-elections to state assemblies are scheduled later this year and the Election Commission may consider use of VVPAT in them. Real elections may throw up newer challenges. And come February 2012, The Election Commission should consider using VVPAT on a large scale either in all or a large number of assembly constituencies in Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. In a year from now, I sincerely hope the paperless voting would be passé and India would usher in the new voting regime that makes elections transparent and verifiable.
The author can be contacted at nrao@indianEVM.com