MUMBAI (IANS) – Opposition parties have been apprehensive about glitches in Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), but a new spectre looms large ahead of May 23 when the counting of votes begins.
With the verdict of millions of voters in the 2019 elections sealed inside EVMs, there are fresh fears of foul play and potential manipulation that could result from alleged loopholes in the counting processes of the Election.
Commission of India (ECI), warns an expert on election laws. In order to avoid this, there is a clamour that the ECI must provide a printout of the votes cast in each EVM to all candidates or their counting agents, which can be later tallied with the final vote-count.
In the EVM era, for reasons best known to it, the ECI continues the old and faulty “manual recording and tabulation” of votes, where there is scope for manoeouvring, said eminent Nagpur-based lawyer Vinod Tiwari, a BJP leader.
He has raised the issue with ECI since 2009 but said the election body was “reluctant to take any steps to improve the systems, which can benefit the entire electoral process”.
“The old, pre-1990, ballot-paper era style of physical counting and tabulation of votes, is still in vogue. The counting supervisors on each counting table manually record, tabulate the votes displayed on the EVMs, then put them on excel sheets with further chances of manipulations, before they are fed in computers by government officials deployed for the purpose. There is a big possibility that the final results may be at variance with the actual votes cast,” Tiwari said.
Worse is the reality of ignorant counting agents, appointed by various political parties, who remain blissfully unaware of such hoodwinking going on before their eyes, Tiwari said.
In the massive counting halls hired by the EC, for safety and security reasons, a strong wire mesh is erected around all the counting tables, the counting agents are kept at least 10-15 feet away, making it impossible to view properly what exactly is recorded on the sheets by the counting supervisors.
As per usual practice, from a tiny slot in the wire-mesh, the counting supervisors generally take the signatures of a few of the counting agents on the prescribed forms on the pretext of attendance before display/counting of the votes begins.
“Here, out of, say, 10 counting agents, the signatures of a few may be taken as a formality and the Counting Agents fail to guage the significance or the gravity of their action as the signatures are obtained very casually,” said Tiwari, who has pointed this serious issue to the ECI.
The Counting Supervisors have no scope for changing the total number of votes (which is the vertical total), but they can surreptitiously “add” the votes polled by independent candidates or those standing third, fourth or fifth, in multiples of 50 or 100, to a particular candidate who has to be “favoured”, without affecting the vertical total. In a particular booth, if the total number of votes polled is, say, 586, then on display of counting of votes, all 586 are shown including NOTA, and the Counting agents dutifully record the numbers against their candidates, plus maybe their immediate rivals, but not all the candidates.
“As the counting table is not visible from the 10-15 feet distance and the wire-mesh barrier, some counting supervisors can simply add up the votes hijacked from independents or other non-serious, lower-ranking candidates to their particular ‘favoured’ candidate,” explained Tiwari.
“When the victory margins are very thin – which is expected in the 2019 parliamentary elections – these additions of 50-100 votes to the ‘favoured’ candidates can make or mar elections, for candidates, political parties or alliances,” he pointed out. In order to avoid and end such intrigues permanently, Samajwadi Party Maharashtra Vice-President Afzal Farooque demanded the ECI must provide a printout of the votes polled on each EVM to all candidates or counting agents, at the counting table itself, before starting the vote count.
The counting agents can later tally the printout figures with the final vote-count to ascertain whether any major errors against their candidates vis-à-vis votes cast have taken place at the counting tables.
“The wire-mesh must be discontinued forthwith. All counting agents pass through at least two security-levels, plus carry valid identity cards provided by the EC. They should be made to sit right behind the counting officials to pre-empt any fraud. We have received many complaints on this aspect in the past,” Farooque told .
Trade Union Joint Action Committee Convenor Vishwas Utagi terms the matter as “portending grave implications for future of Indian democracy”.
“All the political parties must immediately take up the matter with the ECI and, if necessary, move the Supreme Court, as a few officials cannot be allowed to play around with democracy,” Utagi told . In India, the counting of votes is governed by the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, under the Representation of the People Act, 1951, though these have been amended for the EVMs era. On March 24, 1992, the Rules (vide Notification No. S.O.230(E)) were amended to make them in tune with EVM era, informed Tiwari, who was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s National Co-Convenor and Vice-President (Legal & Legislative Cell) from 2012-2017.