Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi is a former chief election commissioner of India. He has authored the book An Undocumented Wonder – The Making of the Great Indian Election. MIT Technology Review reached out to him for insight on technological interventions undertaken over the years by the Election Commission of India (ECI). The following correspondence was done over email.
Electronic Voting Machines were introduced in India almost two decades ago. Since then, there has not been much technological advancement in the electoral process, particularly in terms of transmission of results. As a former ECI chief known for his reformist vision, how do you look at the issue?
The Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) were first tested in India in the Kerala assembly elections of 1982. However, the machines could not be used again until 1998 because of a Supreme Court decision that prohibited its use on the grounds that there was no provision for its purpose in election laws.
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Following an amendment to the Representation of the People’s Act, the ECI administered voting through EVMs in 16 assembly constituencies in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi held in November 1998. EVMs have since been used in every state election.
The 2004 general election to the Lok Sabha (lower house of the National Parliament) was the first conducted entirely through EVMs. Since then, the technology underlying these machines has undergone continuous improvements. Several iterations of the machines have been used, each with superior security features. The M1 machines were used between 1989-2006.
The one in use right now is the M2 type. It’s compatible with the Voters Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) technology, and also has encryption and time stamping of key press features. Though M3, a more advanced type with self diagnostic features, has been available since 2013 and is gradually replacing M2. The latest iteration stops functioning automatically if it detects tampering with routine operation.
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EVMs have stood the test of time, and the introduction of VVPATs has rendered the voting system completely foolproof. Since 2017, all state assembly elections have featured VVPAT use. Slips have been generated in nearly 1,500 cases, and not a single mismatch has been detected.
The 2019 general election was held using nearly two million EVMs, all fitted with VVPAT machines. A total of 20,625 VVPAT machines were counted, and again, not a single mismatch was detected.
Are you satisfied with the five EVM per constituency limit set on Supreme Court directives for VVPAT recount? There’s a view that instead of taking the entire country as a unit, individual states should be taken as separate units to come at a more statistically significant sample size. Do you agree?
The counting of one machine per assembly constituency was clearly inadequate in my view. The Supreme Court held the same view and directed the Election Commission to increase random matching of VVPAT slips to five polling booths per assembly segment. Later 21 opposition parties went back to SC demanding that VVPAT slips be verified in at least 50 percent of the constituencies. But this demand was considered unreasonable.
In my opinion, the fact that not a single mismatch was found in the 20,625 VVPAT slips proves that the innovation has been a great success. It would not be wrong to say that VVPAT was the biggest success story of the 2019 general election.
A lot goes on in the electoral process leading up to election day. For instance, delimitation of constituencies, voter registration, formation electoral rolls, enforcement of campaign code of conduct, etc. are some major activities that determine the outcome on election Day. Given irregularities are widespread in these activities too, please share your vision about streamlining the pre-poll phase better with the help of technology?
The Election Commission is perhaps India’s most technologically progressive public institution. In a way, it has also spearheaded the removal of technological skepticism from the Indian state machinery. EVMs and VVPATs are the prime examples for which we are renowned the world over.
Over the years, booth management, voter registration, Model Code monitoring, voter education, etc. have all incorporated a vast variety of technological interventions.
Take voter registration for instance. It’s extremely convenient in India due to the use of technology. For those looking to register themselves without visiting the registration office, the ECI’s National Voter Service Portal has complete paraphernalia for registration, tracking application, and booth level information like details of relevant booth level officers (BLOs).
The use of elector’s photo identity cards for voting has been an important technological intervention to achieve the goal of fair elections. It’s another matter that other proofs of identity are also allowed on the day of polls to absolutely ensure that no one is deprived from exercising their right to franchise.
Earlier, multiple vote entries in different polling booths within a constituency or completely different constituencies had resulted in electoral malpractices. However, the linking of the electoral roll with the Aadhar (a 12-digit unique ID number for every Indian citizen) database, though a work in progress, has helped improve the integrity of the roll.
A software developed by the National Informatics Center has enabled the ECI to thoroughly randomize the database of the polling personnel. This has ensured concealment of the identity of polling stations where polling staff is to be posted. Mixing of the personnel in a polling party is carried out in such a way that no two officials are from the same department.
In accordance with the Model Code of Conduct, candidates and political parties are required to seek permission for rallies and public meetings in the canvassing phase. The introduction of Sugam portal — another technological intervention — has made the permission process absolutely transparent. There’s a separate portal for grievance redressal too.
The ECI has deployed video conferencing technology for election monitoring purposes. The entire polling process is webcasted live from the polling station level, and Internet users can watch all the activities at any polling station from anywhere in the country.
To effectively deal with the Model Code of Conduct violations, the Commission has introduced a ‘Cvigil’ app. It can be used by citizens to post their complaints. It allows complainants to upload still photographs and video evidence.
The Commission is doing its best to make elections free, fair, and transparent with greater use of technology at every stage in the process. This trend must continue if we are to conduct elections in the 21st century.
You have been a critic of Internet voting because of the security concerns involved. Have other ways been considered by the ECI to address the issue of NRI voting, given the existing system allows online registration but doesn’t have provisions for remote voting?
Approximately 13 million Indians are living abroad. Of these non-resident Indians (NRIs), about seven million are adults and are eligible to vote. When the issue of proxy voting for NRIs first came up in a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court in 2014, the EC was asked to set up a committee to examine the proposal. Subsequently, the Committee for Exploring Feasibility of Alternative Options for Voting by Overseas Electors was set up. It examined existing systems across the world and shortlisted four possibilities to let NRIs use their right to franchise: voting in embassies, online voting, postal or e-postal ballot, and proxy voting.
The committee recommended that e-postal ballots and proxy votings could be used for this purpose based on three conditions. Firstly, one person should act as a proxy for only one overseas elector; second, overseas electors could only pick someone registered as a voter in their home constituency as their proxy; and third, the appointment of a proxy shall be valid until the elector themselves revokes it to make a fresh appointment.
The Lok Sabha has approved a bill allowing for proxy voting. However, it has yet to be passed by the upper house of the Parliament.
In my opinion, there are some fundamental objections to the idea of proxy voting. For instance, will this special privilege to people who have migrated abroad be discriminatory when there is a much larger number of domestic migrants who also seek to have a voting right in their home constituencies? Second, the Model Code of Conduct which is strictly enforced in the country would be impossible to enforce in foreign jurisdictions. Will this amount to discrimination? Third, there can be no guarantee of NRI voters exercising their vote in a free and fair manner as there can be no check on coercion or inducements by employers and supervisors. Remember, a majority of foreign migrants are poor workers often at the mercy of their employers who even take their passports into custody. Fourth, what is the guarantee that votes would not be sold to the so-called proxy? Fifth, nor is it certain that the proxy will vote in accordance with the wishes of the overseas voter. Sixth and last, proxy voting will violate the principle of secrecy of vote.
It wasn’t without reason that the former chief election commissioner, N. Gopalaswami, had termed the idea of proxy voting as ‘a beehive which will sting you.’
Going forward, I suggest we must remember the conventional wisdom that every reform should first be tested in a small territory before it could be scaled up.