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Indian election 2024: Electronic Voting Machine disenfrenchise ‘secret vote’!

Binny yadav

Indian election 2024: For any democracy to survive, adult franchise is a pre-condition and the other more important condition is the secrecy of this choice. As India votes to choose its 18th Lok Sabha, questions have been raised on the reliability of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). Countrywide protests demand their complete rollback and the demand for 100% counting and cross-checking of Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) records. Additionally, there are more serious and credible questions against EVMs. Critics argue that these voting machines are responsible for disenfranchising voters, casting a big question mark on the entire election exercise.

The big question, therefore, is if your ballot secret? If not, the very basic factor responsible for free and fair elections is jeopardized, eventually dismantling the edifice of democracy. The culprit is the voting machine, which collects the votes but can’t keep them a secret. The Election Commission recommended a ‘Totaliser’ in 2008. The Law Commission endorsed this recommendation. Courts ordered its implementation. However, EVMs are still used as booth-wise vote casting machines. They lack a mechanism for keeping the votes secret. This clearly disenfranchises voters from their fundamental right to choose the government of their choice by free and fair means.

In 2013, even before the Bhartiya Janata Party formed the government in 2014 and much before electronic voting machines came under hammer for the possible tempering, this was realised by the election commission of India that EVMs, can temper with the process of fair right of voting by not keeping the secrecy of the ballot or vote.

Over the years, possibilities of tampering of the EVMs became a prominent issue. Differing opinions and questions were raised on the VVPAT for its transparency. There were also calls for eliminating the use of EVMs in general. The belief that EVMs compromise the fairness of the democratic process is supported purely by mathematical calculations. These calculations are based on how the votes are cast and counted. The very methodology of counting of votes through EVMs has been under scanner since long, with safeguard mechanism proposed by the concerned authorities-in this case Election commission of India, but none implemented yet, tearing apart the very concept of ‘secret ballot’

What is a ‘Secret Ballot’

The right to free and fair elections for citizens of India emanates from the fundamental right to Free Speech and Expression. This right is enshrined in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. Under the provisions of the Representation of the Peoples Act, 1951, every citizen of India has the “right to vote”. This right includes the inherent right to have a fair and free opportunity for every citizen of India to cast his/her vote without having any fear or intimidation. The Act also provides for maintaining “secrecy of voting” and also for “maintaining of secrecy regarding counting of votes” by every person connected with the recording or counting of votes. The rules under the Act also recommends “maintenance of secrecy of voting” by electors within polling station and voting procedure.

Why EVMs doesn’t keep ‘Secrecy of Ballot’

Before 1971, counting of votes used to be done polling station wise. However, seeing the violence and intimidation of voters in the post-poll period in areas where the voters had not voted for a particular candidate, the procedure was changed. Instead, ballot papers of all booths/polling stations in a single constituency were mixed and then counted.

Electronic Voting Machines were introduced in India in 1998 for voting and counting of votes in constituency-based elections, among other uses. Since 2004, they have been used throughout the country as a voting mechanism. The EVMs however, continued pre 1971 system of counting the votes booth or polling station wise. Thus, ever since EVMs have been used as voting mechanism has put a question mark for not only the secrecy of vote but also for the intimidation of the voters. It actually discloses the voting preference of a particular polling station. This is easily understood during the counting process, as it becomes clear which ballot box is carrying the vote of which block, Mohalla, or house numbers. While individual votes may remain secret, EVMs clearly discount the provision of ‘secrecy of votes’. They do this by disclosing the booth-wise voting pattern.

This not only leads to a violation of the right to secrecy of ballot or maintenance of secrecy of ballot but also the right to vote without fear and intimidation. It leaves the voters exposed to coercion and victimization. This also gives an opportunity for the political parties specially the ruling party for undue influence, allurement of voters and trading of votes.

In fact, the Election Commission, while acknowledging the need for the issue, recommended way back in November 2008 to use Totaliser in EVM for counting. The aim was to avoid booth-wise counting. However, no effective steps have been taken in this regard.

Who is sitting on Election Commission’s Recommendation for Totaliser?

In 2008, the ECI recommended to the Ministry of Law and Justice to amend the Election Rules. The purpose was to provide for the use of a totaliser for the counting of votes recorded in EVMs at elections. As per the ECI’s suggestion, the results of votes polled in a group of 14 EVMs, hence in 14 polling stations, would be calculated and announced together. This marks a change from the current practice of counting votes by each polling station. The change is based on technological constraints.

The underlying rationale behind the ECI’s proposal was that the “current” system revealed the voting trends in each polling station. This left the voters in that vicinity open to harassment, intimidation, and post-election victimization.

Prior to the introduction of EVMs, ballot papers could be mixed, wherever it was considered “absolutely necessary” under Rule 59A of the Election Rules in light of “apprehend[ed] intimidation and victimisation of electors”. However, EVMs do not permit this.

The Law Commission further recommended a procedure. It stated that in appropriate cases, where the Election Commission apprehends intimidation and victimization of electors in any constituency, action should be taken. The Commission should be of the opinion that the votes recorded in the voting machines should be mixed before counting. It may specify such a constituency by notification in the Official Gazette.

officer shall use a totaliser for the counting of votes recorded in a group of electronic voting machines”.

The Law Commission also maintained that using a totaliser would increase the secrecy of votes during counting. It would prevent the disclosure of voting patterns and counter fears of intimidation and victimization.

Although the ECI’s proposal was referred to a Parliamentary Committee in 2009, no action was taken on it. In August 2014, the ECI moved the Law Ministry on this issue again. Subsequently, in September 2014, the Supreme Court issued directions to the government in a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) case titled Yogesh Gupta v ECI542. The directions were issued to clarify why no steps were taken pursuant to the Election Commission of India’s 2008 proposals. The three-judge bench of the Court noted that the issue had been referred to the Law Commission for consideration. They asked the government what concrete steps it had taken. The steps were regarding the Election Commission of India’s suggestions. These suggestions aimed to use a totaliser to prevent or reduce instances of intimidation or victimization.

Moreover, as the Election Commission of India (ECI) has clarified, a “totaliser” has already been developed by EVM manufacturers. This totaliser connects several control units at a time. It indicates the total number of votes polled and recorded in the specified number of polling stations. Thus, administratively, it is not difficult to collect information about the number of votes polled by each candidate for a whole group of polling stations. This process hides the pattern of voting in each individual booth.

Citing all the above facts and reasons, the Law Commission reiterated and endorsed the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) suggestion. It recommended introducing a totaliser for the counting of votes recorded in EVMs. The Commission proposes to amend rules. This amendment would empower the ECI to decide when and in which constituency and polling booths to employ a totaliser. This decision will consider the context of the elections and any threats of intimidation or victimization.

Why even the Court order on use of Totaliser not implemented yet

In 2013, the High Court of Delhi made an observation. This was in response to a Public Interest Petition filed by an NGO SP Chetna, working on civil and democratic rights. It noted EC had already recommended to the Government of India (GOI) the use of a totaliser. This recommendation aimed to ensure the confidentiality of voters’ choices. It also aimed to prevent any retaliation by winning candidates against votes from specific booths that may have voted against them.

In a letter to the Election Commission of India (ECI) in 2013, the NGO also pleaded. They stated that votes can be traced to a block of about 200 households allocated to a booth. Political parties allegedly buy block votes through local goons or leaders. These individuals guarantee 90% of votes in favor of the highest bidder. The threat of reprisal or intimidation keeps most voters of a booth in line.

It also maintained that their research reveals something significant. Local goons or leaders collect ration cards, pension papers, etc., as a security deposit. They return these only if the entire booth votes as promised.

Secret ballot and democracy

According to Rajiv Kakria and Anil Sood, founders of SP Chetna, this results in a total collapse of the democratic machinery eventually. They argue that coercion and intimidation for votes are the direct fallout when the ballot is not secret. They question whether bulk purchase of votes on caste, community, and religious lines can be called a Secret Ballot.

According to Rajiv kakria, booths are captured months before the elections in a bloodless swoop without a bullet being fired. Booth-Wise Result of Constituencies should not be made available to anyone. Elected representatives after getting the booth-wise result of polling, then start blackmailing.”

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