Bring Back Ballot Papers

Sandeep Pandey

As election fever rises and political parties get busy with campaigning, one issue that refuses to die even after elections have been declared is that of the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) and the accompanying Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT). Outside the government establishment and the ruling party circles, there is widespread disenchantment with the EVM-VVPAT system. An ordinary illiterate villager from Hardoi, Unnao, or Sitapur districts of Uttar Pradesh will tell you that she is not sure where her vote is going after she presses the EVM button. Banarsi, a resident of Village Chandpur Faridpur in Mehmoodabad tehsil of District Sitapur says that in the last election he pressed the election symbol of the Elephant on EVM but saw Lotus in the glass of VVPAT and therefore doesn’t have any faith in EVM.

An Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and New Jersey trained engineer Rahul Mehta, who also runs a political party by the name of Right to Recall Party, has designed a machine where he demonstrates how the black glass, introduced in 2017, hides how votes are stolen by EVM and VVPAT combine. A voter when casts her vote will be able to see the symbol in VVPAT to which she has voted. But while every vote to the preferred symbol is printed as a separate slip inside VVPAT, for consecutive votes to any other symbol only the first vote is printed, shown to the remaining consecutive voters by a light bulb which goes on for 7 seconds inside the VVPAT for each voter and rest of the votes are printed as the preferred symbol. This is how the machine has been programmed. To make the preferred symbol win the election by stealing votes from other candidates. 

Now Rahul Mehta is not claiming that this is what actually happens in the EVM-PPVATs used by the Election Commission of India but he is just demonstrating a possibility of how votes can be stolen if somebody decides to do that. Neither is he claiming that this is being done everywhere. But if the ruling party wants, with the help of sympathetic computer programmers, systems managers, and officials, it can manipulate the machines in some constituencies, especially where it fears losing by small margins.

There are a range of voices against EVM and proposed alternatives. Right now only five booths in an assembly constituency, which has roughly 300 booths, are randomly chosen to tally the figures from EVM and VVPAT. Some people demand the 100% counting of VVPATs should be done and tallied with EVM figures. However, Rahul Mehta’s contraption shows that votes can be manipulated in both the EVM and VVPAT and can perfectly tally without revealing that votes were stolen from candidates who stand opposite to the preferred party candidate. Some others suggest that VVPAT slips should be handed over to the voter who then should deposit it in a box that has no electronic chip and these slips should be counted. Now, if we’re going to count slips printed by VVPATs collected in an ordinary box, we might as well count the ballot papers after they have been stamped by the voter and deposited in a ballot box. What is the need to keep the EVM-VVPAT between the voter and the paper slips/ballot paper? EVM-VVPAT becomes redundant in this case serving no purpose like efficiency or quick results for which it was brought in, in the first place. It’ll be there merely as a showpiece just to make us feel good that we’re using modern technology. Mahatma Gandhi’s views on automobiles apply here very well. He said transportation is a human need, not its rapidity. Why can’t we spend some extra time and effort but ensure that the elections are free and fair?

Hence it appears that bringing ballot papers back for assembly and parliamentary elections is the most wise solution. The local bodies’ elections are anyway held with ballot papers. This implies that bureaucratic machinery to conduct polls with ballot papers is already in place. The Election Commission does not print ballot papers even in assembly and parliamentary elections for government employees who have to vote through postal ballots and senior citizens above 85 years of age who vote from their homes. Hence what is needed is to print ballot papers in larger numbers. Several countries, including developed ones, have gone back to the ballot paper. The argument against ballot papers that they too could be stolen holds less weight now with the availability of cameras. In the Chandigarh Mayoral elections fudging of ballot papers was caught on the camera. Had the same thing been done through the EVM-VVPAT it would not have been caught as what happened inside the machine is hidden from everybody, including the unsuspecting officials overseeing the polls.

However, what may happen if a significant number of citizens decide to participate in the Satyagraha from many constituencies, the Election Commission of India may be forced to think of, if not removing the EVM-VVPAT completely, at least providing the option of ballot paper to people like this writer who have no trust in the EVM-VVPAT system.

There is hope from the court. If the Supreme Court can show the determination it has in the case of electoral bonds and can instruct the ECI to conduct polls through ballot papers or at least provide the option of the ballot paper to those asking for it, the problem will be solved. o

Sandeep Pandey, General Secretary, Socialist Party (India)

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Vol 56, No. 45, May 5 - 11, 2024