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Constitutional Right Vs Digital Database: Why The Election Commission Must Make 100% Counting Of VVPAT Slips Mandatory

Now that the counting is over and the ECI has all the time in this world, what is stopping them from going ahead with this?

Digital devices are for our convenience and an assured efficiency in various processes, but what happens when they start posing a threat to fundamental rights to information, privacy in a so-called democratic society like ours?

A major debate during the recently concluded 2019 General Elections has been around the credibility of the electronically conducted voting process through Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). Grave complaints have surfaced after these elections regarding inaccurate vote counts. A news report doing rounds on social media also alleged discrepancies in several constituencies from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh.

These complaints raise serious concern on the credibility of EVMs and the vote counting mechanism. Influential voices — from the political arena as well as civil society organisations — have demanded transparency in the counting process, asking the Election Commission of India (ECI) to consider 100 per cent counting of Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT).

EVM rigging
Representational Image

Does counting paper trail, in any way, mean retracing our steps to the good old practice of ballot papers for voting in the era of digital innovation? And would that mean reneging on our promise of digital communities?

I don’t think so!

Firstly, we need to realise that even though the advent of machines and digital technology has opened a plethora of possibilities unimaginable by the human minds even a decade ago, just like us, these are capable of making mistakes as well. After all, we made the machines and not the other way around! Any and every digital database always runs under the risk of aberration, as seen in the cases of Aadhaar data breach (irrespective of Indian government’s 13 feet high and five feet thick claim of security).

Also read: EC Yet to Receive Tally of Mandatory Matching of VVPAT Slips

Let’s refresh our memories. Millions of Indian citizens’ personal information was compromised following an alleged data leak at Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO), a retirement fund for salaried workers. A letter by Central Provident Fund Commissioner confirmed the claim, admitting that a large chunk of “data was stolen by hackers exploiting the vulnerabilities prevailing in the Aadhaar-linking website”.

When a “fool-proof” system like such can be breached, putting at risk private financial information of so many people, one can only ponder over the confidentiality and unbreachability of e-elections. Even the slightest possibility of tampering with digital votes or the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) punches a big hole in the robustness of the electoral process and hence, India’s democratic fibre.

But these concerns are not new. Following several widespread reports of EVM “malfunctioning” and alleged tampering, the Election Commission of India (ECI) made available a preliminary verification process, VVPATs, in its effort to make vote recording process transparent. First introduced in India in 2013 elections at Nagaland’s Noksen constituency, VVPATs give a seven-second glimpse of a voter’s mandate.

election results 2019
(Photo Credit: Twitter/@SpokespersonECI)

The knowledge of vote recording process and its verifiability to the public is essential and must not be tinkered with.  Even progressive democracies like Norway, Finland and Netherlands scrapped the e-voting system after their committees found it unabiding of the democratic values. In its determining judgement of 2009, the German constitutional court took into account how an electronic voting process “infringes upon the principle of the public nature of elections”. It stated that “if the election result is determined through computer-controlled processing of the votes stored in an electronic memory, it is not sufficient if merely the result of the calculation process carried out in the voting machine can be taken note of by means of a summarising printout or an electronic display”.

Also read: SC Dismisses 21 Opposition Leaders’ Review Petition for Matching of 50% VVPAT Slips

Any electronic voting process can certainly not be relied upon solely for recording and processing a mandate of over 1.3 billion people. It can only act as a tool to facilitate and simplify the process and must be backed up with a transparent “paper trail”; only then an election can be called fair. The ECI must take this into account and make 100 per cent counting of VVPAT slips mandatory. That is the only way the election body can ensure people their hard-earned right to information and privacy.

Under the current order, in case of any grievance, the ECI would count only VVPATs of five polling stations per assembly segment. Which means, from the current elections, the ECI will count only the VVPATs of 20,600 polling booths out of a total of 10.6 lakh polling stations across India. As per the sampling norm, only two per cent of the total polling booths are cross-checked.

Since the ECI says that counting the entire country’s paper trail is a time taking and tardy process, now that the counting is over and the election body has all the time in this world, what is stopping them from counting 100 per cent VVPAT?

Merely initiating a digitalised voting system in a country where approximately half of the population still has no access to digital education is a mockery of the electoral process. Just imagine the understanding marginalised communities bear about electronic voting. In various rural pockets I travelled to in the recent months, people barely knew about the vote verification process in the VVPAT window; many still expressed reservations in pressing the “blue button”.

It is the government’s prerogative to include every citizen — those who are yet to understand digital parlance, those who come from fringes and are part of illiterate communities — into the electoral process. The government must ensure — with the help of digital literacy and media and information literacy (MIL) — that a citizen is not just a vote; but is also able to make a conscious choice and is an informed voter.

It is of utmost importance that a voter, without having a higher level of functional literacy and detailed knowledge of digital technology, is made to understand the recording process and be able to verify their choices. This is the basic tenet of a fair election process.

Osama Manzar is founder and director at Digital Empowerment Foundation. He tweet @osamamanzar

Rama Dwivedi is Assistant Communication Manager at Digital Empowerment Foundation. 

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