Going back to paper ballots make no sense, say former Chief Election Commissioners
V.S. Sampath, who demitted office in January 2015 after nearly three years at the helm of the Election Commission, said going back to paper ballots "makes no sense"
The demand to bring back paper ballots in the next Lok Sabha elections in place of Electronic Voting Machines being pressed by major opposition parties has not found favour with two former Chief Election Commissioners, who, however, share their opposition to a proposal for simultaneous elections, saying it cannot be "coerced".
The former CECs say that though both the issues are theoretically in the realm of possibility, but, in practical terms, they are neither feasible nor desirable. They were reacting to a planned move by 17 parties, including the Congress and the Trinamool Congress, to approach the Election Commission to press for restoring the paper ballot system in view of their apprehensions over the integrity of the EVMS and the possibility of their manipulation and the failure of the VVPAT (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail) slips in recent elections.
V.S. Sampath, who demitted office in January 2015 after nearly three years at the helm of the Election Commission, said going back to paper ballots "makes no sense". "Nobody will accept it," Sampath told IANS. He said with the introduction of VVPAT slips, which the Election Commission has said would be deployed throughout the country in all elections hereafter, there is already a paper ballot system that is going to be in place.
"VVPAT is a credible system by which the voter knows whom he has voted for and his ballot slip has gone into a box which can be retrieved at any time in case of a dispute for verification. It does the job of paper balloting that leaves an audit trail," he said. To incorporate safeguards and to remove doubts in the minds of political parties, Sampath said the Commission could think of increasing the proportion of counting slips in consultation with parties. The quantity of sampling of slips can be increased.
Another former CEC, who declined to be named, said the EVMs have been subjected to criticism from the very beginning on one ground or another. "While people are talking of returning to the ballot papers, let's revisit how and why we switched to the machines in the first place. There were many serious issues with the ballot papers. Firstly, it is not an environment-friendly method. So many ballot papers would need cutting of innumerable trees. On the other hand, EVMs, once made, can be used over and over again.
"Secondly, there was the issue of a large number of invalid votes. If a voter failed to put the stamp correctly, if the stamp touched the margins, the vote would be deemed invalid. This invariably resulted in disputes at the time of counting. Also, the counting of votes took a very long time, he said. The former EC boss said there were also cases of booth capturing and ballot papers being forged. This led to frequent countermanding of polls.
It was in this background that it was decided to hold the elections with machines. The EVMs are tamper-proof -- unless you get hold of one and change the motherboard. But you will need to steal a very large number of machines and then restore them back to the EC strong room that has multi-layered security, without anyone knowing about it, in order to actually influence an election, he said.
Asked about opposition's suspicions that chips can be installed in EVMs that can make them behave in a particular way for a specific time and then return to normal, he said: "I don't think that is possible." "What happens is that when a party has huge expectations of winning the polls but fails, it resorts to blaming the EVMs. They can't blame the voters because then the voters may teach them a more bitter lesson in the next elections," he said.
Sampath said that after the 2009 general elections too there were grave misgivings over the machines. Telugu Desam Party chief N. Chandrababu Naidu made a presentation at an all-party meeting convened by the Election Commission in 2010 in which 42 recognised parties participated. "Barring three or four parties, all of them expressed misgivings. The Shiv Sena said go back to paper ballots. We said there is no question of going back to paper ballots. The first step for the VVPAT was sown in that meeting," he recalled.
He said a subsequent CEC announced that whenever elections are held, VVPATs would be introduced to provide for an audit trail. The other CEC said: "You see, in 2004, it was a different party that questioned the EVMs. In 2009, it was the (currently-ruling) BJP that vigorously advocated discarding the EVMs. But the fact is that after around 120 state and national elections with EVMs, nobody has been able to prove that the EVM used by the Commission can be tampered with. The EC has repeatedly thrown challenges. The demonstration in the Delhi assembly was done using a toy machine, not the actual EVM."
He acknowledged that "large-scale" failure of VVPATs in recent bypolls -- for technical reasons or whatever - has created another controversy. "Having said that, if the entire system, that is all political parties agree, the EC can return to the ballot paper. The EC functions as per the law. The current law is for holding elections through machines, so that is being done. If they make a law to hold the elections through ballot papers, the EC would do that," he said.
On the issue of simultaneous elections on which the Law Commission is holding consultations, Sampath said: "Elections are held as per law of the land and they cannot be coerced." "Even if simultaneous elections are held to the Lok Sabha and the Assemblies, there is no guarantee that the respective Houses would last their terms. And then you can't wait for Parliament's term to end to hold elections to Assemblies or vice versa, given the coalition era and the political instability the country has gone through since the 1990s."
Sampath said simultaneous elections should come in the "natural course and cannot be coerced". He acknowledged that frequent elections in India put pressure on governance because of the Model Code of Conduct that restrains governments from taking decisions and sometimes this covered the Central government too. It also puts pressure on parties because it becomes some kind of a frequent referendum.
To overcome frequent elections, Sampath suggested that elections, especially to Assemblies, can be clubbed as far as possible together in a year. "Elections becoming due in some states in different periods can be clubbed together for which the Election Commission should also be given some flexibility beyond the six-month period to have the authority to hold polls. A party that is in power with a huge majority at a given time cannot be sure that it will always be the case," he said.
Sampath said simultaneous elections can theoretically be good but "we should be able to achieve the right thing for right reasons and not wrong reasons". He also suggested that the requirement of a by-election within six months of a constituency falling vacant can be done away with, giving the Commission more leeway in clubbing vacancies together. The other former CEC said, "simultaneous polls are not that easy to do".
"At least I don't see them happening in 2019. You need Constitutional amendments and a legal framework for that. But again, if there is a consensus among the political parties on this, even simultaneous elections can be done. But that is easier said than done," he said.
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