The Election Commission (EC) will only enhance its credibility in the eyes of the people by agreeing to increase the VVPAT (voter-verified paper audit trail) paper verification of votes counted by electronic voting machines (EVMs) in various polling booths. So why is the EC resisting the idea of more VVPAT verifications, which 21 opposition parties have demanded in a petition to the Supreme Court?
At present, the EC has agreed to do physical verification through VVPAT only for one booth per assembly segment. This amounts to less than 1% of the EVMs subjected to VVPAT verification. On Monday, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi strongly urged the deputy election commissioner present in the court that the EC should consider increasing the number of VVPAT verifications, only to enhance the purity and credibility of the democratic exercise.
At one point, the chief justice even expressed annoyance with the deputy election commissioner, who argued there was no need to increase the number of VVPAT verifications of the votes polled electronically. CJI Gogoi thought it fit to remind the EC that it was the Supreme Court’s insistence in 2013 that led to the installation of the VVPAT paper trail. The EC was resisting even introducing VVPAT then, the CJI reminded the EC official .
Indeed, it is inexplicable that the EC should resist a legitimate plea from political parties who have polled more than 60% of the votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections that the number of VVPAT verifications be increased from the present level. It is equally strange that the ruling party is not putting its weight behind the proposal to make the voting and counting process more transparent.
The opposition petition asked for VVPAT verification in at least 50% of the polling booths. That may be a very high number, but surely a compromise formula can be worked out whereby 20% to 30% of the booths can be opened for random verification. There is no harm if the results are delayed by some 48 hours because of this process.
In this context, former chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi had come up with an innovative idea. Writing for The Wire, he has said the candidate with the second largest votes in any constituency should be selectively allowed to choose the polling booths for random VVPAT verifications. Like in cricket, where decisions are referred to the third umpire with slow motion replay facility, every party contesting in the various states must be given a certain number of chances to do VVPAT verification.
Indeed, the EC will truly enhance its credibility by coming up with a solution on its own rather than be ordered by the SC on what it should do. There should be no ego among constitutional authorities when it comes to enhancing transparency and credibility of the democratic process. The EC need not look at the judiciary as an intruder in its domain. Besides, no purpose will be served if the EC gets opinion from statistical experts that a minuscule sample would suffice to make the process VVPAT verification process credible. The question here is one of dealing with people’s anxiety about transparency and verifiability.
There has been an endless debate over whether the EVMs are totally foolproof and cannot be tampered with at all. Views have been expressed on both sides of the divide. Statistically, it has been established that some 5% of the EVMs do genuinely malfunction, but they do not have any bearing on the larger outcomes. Doubts have also been raised by some sceptics about the lack of transparency in the way the software for the EVM chips has been designed by private firms abroad. The EC, on its part, has appointed a panel of top experts from institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology to examine the technical parameters and dispel all doubts.
But unfortunately, such intense debate over the past few years has not helped in totally dispelling all doubts with regard to the electronic polling process. Many experts have rightly pointed out that advanced democratic nations like Germany, Netherlands, Ireland and the US have either gone back to or are in the process of reintroducing the paper ballot, inspite of the best technology available to them. There is an elaborate judgement from a German court arguing in favour of the physical ballot paper, simply on grounds of transparency and verifiability. This happened possibly because the democratic process is seen as so sacrosanct that physical counting of ballot paper was privileged over the use of technology to remove even residual doubts.
India is also in the midst of a similar debate, but no resolution is in sight. For the time being, however, the EC must act in the interest of total transparency and accept VVPAT verifications for a much larger sample of booths than at present. As the chief justice said, “All institutions, however high, must be open to self improvement.” We cannot afford to go into the 2019 Lok Sabha polls with so much doubt and distrust.