Gateway to fair elections: Will India do full count of verifiable paper record in elections?

Over 300 intellectuals and thought leaders from across world’s largest democracy - India - have written to the Election Commission demanding full count of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) slips.

This joint letter, “Electoral Integrity - Conduct of fair poll to reflect the mandate of the people - Full count of VVPAT slips--Representation thereof” was delivered by Supreme Court advocate Shashank Raj Singh to the offices of Election Commission of India before state elections had begun in India on 10th February 2022.

“It is universally known that voting done by electronic voting machines does not comply with the essential requirements of ‘Democracy Principles’, that is, each voter having the direct knowledge and capacity to verify that his/her vote is cast-as-intended; recorded-as-cast and counted-as-recorded. It also does not provide provable guarantees against hacking, tampering and spurious vote injections. Thus, elections must be conducted assuming that the electronic voting machines may possibly be tampered with” said Dr Sandeep Pandey, Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for emergent leadership, considered as Asia’s Nobel Prize.

Design and implementation of electronic voting machines used by Election Commission of India as well as the results of both software and hardware verification are not public and open to full independent review. Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system does not allow the voter to verify the slip before the vote is cast. Due to absence of End-to-end verifiability, the present system of using electronic voting machines is not verifiable and therefore is unfit for democratic elections, argues over 300 endorsers of the open letter to the election commission.

Dr Sandeep Pandey, who was elected as General Secretary of Socialist Party (India), explains to The Bangkok Post: “Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) was introduced to resolve the matter [of doubts on how fair is electronic voting machine] to some extent. But though VVPAT is installed in every electronic voting machine (EVM) and despite Supreme Court norm to verify electronic voting machines’ vote with VVPAT slips from five randomly selected booths from every Assembly constituency, in actual practice, often not even one paper slip is counted and matched to verify/audit the votes polled and votes counted before making the results public. This has exposed elections to serious fraud.”

Dr Sandeep Pandey who has been a noted visiting faculty at Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) added further: “And to make it worse, with the introduction of VVPAT there is duplicity in voting. There are two votes now – one vote is recorded in the EVM and one vote is printed by the VVPAT. Government of India’s Rule 56D(4)(b) of the Conduct of Election (Amendment) Rules, 2013 provides for the primacy of the VVPAT slip count over the electronic tally of ballots cast and calculated on the EVMs. Therefore, there is no justifiable reason as to why VVPAT slips should not be counted in every Assembly Constituency so as to assuage suspicions in the minds of voters that their votes have not been recorded and counted accurately. This will go a long way in clearing the haze of doubt that continues to hang over the reliability of electronic vote casting and counting as a faithful record of voter preferences.”

To go a step further, since VVPAT slips supersede EVM memory it is futile and waste of time and energy for election commission of India to continue the practice of electronic counting and instead resort to only 100% counting of VVPAT slips to ensure honesty and integrity in the declarations of results.

This is exactly what has been suggested by former Chief Election Commissioner of government of India, SY Quraishi, during whose tenure as head of election commission, VVPATs were introduced: “All the VVPAT slips may be counted. This will end the demand for return to ballot paper for good. Counting the VVPAT slips would be much like paper ballots, without return to the ballot papers as the VVPAT chits are much smaller in size, containing the name of only one candidate, unlike the big ballot paper with multiple candidates….. So, in the end there would not be much difference whether we count EVMs or VVPAT slips. Only that reversing the process—that is counting VVPAT slips—would enhance transparency and credibility of the electoral system….”

That is why a growing number of citizens have endorsed the open letter to the election commission, which clearly states that “This gives the lie to the false claims of certain ECI officials that full counting of VVPAT slips for declaring results will take several days. It is common knowledge that under the paper-ballot system even in larger parliament/assembly constituencies votes were counted and results declared within 16/18 hours and counting of 100% VVPAT slips will not take more than that time. If need be mechanical sorters can be deployed to hasten the counting process.”

Article 324(1) of the Constitution of India vests with the Election Commission of India plenipotentiary powers to carry out the mandate of “superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections to Parliament and to the Legislature of every State and of elections to the offices of President and Vice President.” Rulings of the Supreme Court India, inter alia lay down that Article 324 is a reservoir of power to act for the avowed purpose of conducting free and fair elections with expedition. Apex Court has observed in a catena of cases that fair and free elections is a basic feature of the Constitution.

It is therefore imperative for the Election Commission of India (ECI) to notify the vote counting process as requested for which they are fully empowered and there cannot be any excuse. Since elections to five state assemblies of India have just commenced and vote counting would take place on 10 March 2022, ECI should issue the required Notification immediately so that these elections could be conducted, votes counted and results declared with integrity and fairness in the interest of India’s democracy.

(Citizen News Service)
11 February 2022