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Question-Mark Over Functioning Of EVMs: First Hand Account By Polling Agent Of Opposition Candidate

Greater awareness of digital footprint of vote polled on VVPAT unit raised voter confidence

Manipulation of electronic voting machines (EVMs) to alter the outcome of elections at various levels has been an oft repeated charge by the Opposition parties whenever they lose the battle to win the people’s mandate, and its echo is only getting louder.

So, when an opportunity came to volunteer as a polling agent of Manish Tewari, the joint Congress, AAP and INDIA alliance candidate for the Chandigarh Lok Sabha seat, for one of the polling booths in the southern sectors, I grabbed it with both hands.

Having already had a taste of contesting the 2021 Municipal Corporation Chandigarh (MCC) general elections as a candidate of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which in its very first foray, quite unexpectedly emerged as the largest party in the 35 member House, I was keen to closely observe the proceedings inside of a polling booth and try to figure out how the EVM could be manipulated, at least at the booth level.

Question-Mark Over Functioning Of EVMs: First Hand Account By Polling Agent Of Opposition Candidate, Lifeinchd

So, on D-day (June 1), after collecting my authorisation letter and voters’ lists etc. from the temporary local office of the Congress party, here I was reporting to the presiding officer for the specific polling booth exactly at 5 a.m., as instructed by the local election in-charge of the party.

The presiding officer was ready for duty but other polling officers were still getting ready (there were tell tale signs of the entire four-member polling party having slept the night on the floor in the polling booth itself with only fans to help them beat the oppressive heat wave sweeping the region and the mosquitoes). The presiding officer asked me to come back at 5:30 a.m., which I did. Eventually polling agents of only two candidates reported to the presiding officer (the other representing BJP candidate Sanjay Tandon).

We were both allowed to match the serial numbers of the three machines being used – the control unit, the twin voting machines with 20 voting options, including one for NOTA (none of the above), and the VVPAT (voter verifiable paper audit trail) unit.

Mock voting & paper trail

Following this the entire setup was completed and the mock voting exercise was undertaken with both of us polling agents taking turns to press the button against each of the 20 options to complete the mandatory 50 mock votes. We were witness to the paper trail of each of the mock vote polled dropping into the box compartment of the VVPAT unit.

All these paper slips were also shown to us for further confirmation. The mock polling was then officially closed from the control unit. Thereafter, the total number of mock votes polled (50) flashed on the display screen of the control unit, followed by the number of votes polled against each of the 20 options, including NOTA.

On satisfactory conclusion of the mock voting drill, the control unit and the VVPAT unit were duly sealed under our watchful eyes. The twin voting units were already sealed.

The setup was again readied for the actual voting, which began dot on time at 7 a.m.

I sat in the polling booth right through the entire polling process. My BJP counterpart, however, took a few hours break in-between by availing the services of a ‘relief agent’ only to return late afternoon to oversee closure of voting at 6 p.m.

Thereafter, the polling officers displayed on the control unit the number of total votes polled to match with our own count, which we confirmed. They also gave us a break-up of number of male and female voters before again sealing all the three machines in their respective boxes.

Total number of votes polled, out of 1069 votes assigned to the polling booth, were 670, making it 62.68% voting percentage. Female voters (357) outnumbered their male counterparts (313) by 44.

All nature of voters on sultry day

On an expectedly sultry day, with intermittent clouds and wind providing some respite, we got to meet and interact with all nature of people, men and women, young and old, some very old and frail needing constant assistance, and some very enthusiastic first time voters.

Despite braving the high 40s temperature, there were many optimists who joked and laughed with others to while away their time while waiting in long queues in the first half of the long polling hours from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. which saw bulk of the polling.

There were also not-so-optimistic people, some blaming the politicians for all the ills of the country and airing their intent to press the ‘NOTA’ button, the last of the 20 options on the twin EVMs, and others rubbishing the entire voting process through EVMs as “farcical”.

An odd angry young man was even heard saying that he will demand of the polling staff to give him a paper trail as proof of him having availed his voting option. There were no voices of support. But when he did vote, and apparently saw the digital trail of his vote on the VVPAT unit before the beep sounded, he left not so angry, though not exactly smiling.

Anger over slow pace of voting, reasons thereof

The voting process was taking its own time, with on an average one minute being spent on each voter, leaving the voters waiting in long queues, separately for ladies and gents, agitated.

After satisfying us two polling agents that a voter bearing a certain voter number had come to the right polling booth and has not already cast his or her vote (this took just a few seconds), each voter subsequently went through two poll officers sitting next to each other to verify antecedents before he or she was allowed to vote.

There were also delays in the process of verification due to various reasons. Voters, especially the elderly and the unfamiliar, were taking time to understand how and when to press their desired button on the EVMs and how to confirm that the vote had indeed been recorded. Watching this happening quite often, an initiative was taken to brief voters inside the booth and those waiting outside about what to expect and do on approaching the voting and VVPAT units. This helped hasten the process a bit.

There were scores of cases of voters being flagged in the voters’ list for not being found at their voter addresses during the process of verification of their residence status by election officials. These cases required intervention by the presiding officer of the polling booth, who cleared them for voting after taking a signed written undertaking from them along with their thumb impression.

A lot of voters were carrying mobiles, despite these being prohibited inside the polling centre/booth, and insisting on showing digital proof of identity, which the poll officers quite obviously declined to accept because of the prohibition on carrying mobiles.

Not carrying voter slips

There were also a few very casual voters, who did not carry their voter slips (mentioning their voter number) to the polling booth. We, as polling agents, were required to verify their voter numbers from the voters’ list with the help of their residential address, again a time consuming exercise.

One senior citizen, who was requested to go get the voter slips which he claimed to have forgotten in his car, started flaunting the high positions held by several of his family members to impress on us to trace their voter numbers from the voter lists. Half a dozen of his family members were voting at the polling booth. Not inclined to oblige the overbearing voter, we still did, considering the oppressive heat, but at the cost of precious time being wasted and holding up others in the queue.

Keeping bubbly little girls happy

Some of the bright and bubbly little girls, mostly accompanying their mothers, insisted on voting too. To make them happy, the obliging polling officers put an indelible ink mark on their finger too and allowed them to accompany their mothers to the twin EVMs to vote.

All in all, despite the heat and the sweat, it indeed was a worthwhile learning and engrossing experience interacting with all nature of people.

Suggested Key Learnings For Election Commission of India

  • Look after the polling staff much better by vastly improving their working and living conditions, which are currently pathetic, to say the least
  • Relook at basic amenities for the voters at polling centres especially in inhospitable weather conditions like the oppressive heat wave this time around
  • Need to further cut down on paperwork and  equip the polling officers with more digital tools to speed up the process of voting
  • Aggressively keep exploring the possibilities of shifting the entire electoral process online, with a view to making it a reality some day in the future

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