Here's why the EVM haunts us

Published: Feb 17, 2020, 05:01 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

While it does not turn the tables for parties, the Electronic Voting Machine gives us enough reasons to question the ECI's competence

ECI staff check and seal EVMs, control units and VVPAT machines to be kept in a strong room ahead of the 2020 Lok Sabha polls. File pic
ECI staff check and seal EVMs, control units and VVPAT machines to be kept in a strong room ahead of the 2020 Lok Sabha polls. File pic

picWhen it became certain that the Aam Aadmi Party would win the Delhi Assembly elections, veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta, on February 11, tweeted, "I suppose we could count this as one more nail hammered hard and deep in the coffin of EVM conspiracy theories." Gupta's was a reference to the many variations of the fundamental theory that the party ruling at the Centre could use its influence over the Election Commission of India (ECI) to rig or hack the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) and subvert popular mandate.

These theories gained currency as the Bharatiya Janata Party threw the familiar community voting pattern into disarray to sweep the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Would not the BJP have tampered with the EVMs, in case it was possible to do so, to stave off a humiliating defeat in Delhi? Yes, which is the answer Gupta's tweet rightly suggests.

Yet there is no denying that election results often challenge the exactitude of electronic recording of votes and their computation. In Delhi's 16 constituencies the tally of votes counted was higher than the number of people who had voted. In another 22 constituencies, the votes counted were lower than the turnout figure in each. Delhi's Karol Bagh had an excess of 1,155 votes; Sangam Vihar a shortfall of 864 votes.

Delhi's chief electoral officer, Ranbir Singh, said these discrepancies could have arisen because the ECI sets aside EVMs that fail to display votes when the "result button" is pressed or those from which mock votes, cast before the voting begins to check their functioning, were not deleted. In case the victory margin exceeds the votes recorded by the EVMs set aside, these are left uncounted. It is inevitable then for the votes counted to fall short of the votes polled.

Singh's explanation, however, does not explain the discrepancy in the 16 constituencies where the votes counted were higher than the votes polled. A former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, experienced in supervising several elections, said to me that poorly trained presiding officers tend to report to the ECI only the number of voters from the constituency who exercised their franchise, without adding the votes of officials who exercise their franchise at the booths where they are deployed. In such cases, the EVM records more votes than the voter turnout figure reported to the ECI. The former IAS officer, however, emphasised that an excess of over 400 votes in an Assembly constituency is high enough to warrant a thorough booth-specific enquiry.

The problem of discrepancy acquired bizarre proportions in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, an account of which is in the petition of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a non-profit organisation, to the Supreme Court. The ADR accessed the total votes cast in each constituency from "My Voter Turnout App", which the ECI introduced last year. The App posted real-time turnout figures, which were subsequently updated.

There were discrepancies in as many as 347 out of 542 constituencies. In 221 seats the EVM votes were more and in the remaining 126, the EVM votes were less than the turnout figures as per the App. The discrepancy ranged from one to over a lakh votes. Patna Sahib, in Bihar, clocked an excess of 55,037, and Karakat, in the same state, 1,01,323 less than the votes polled. In six constituencies — Guntur, Visakhapatnam, Anantnag, Khunti, Koraput, and Machhlishahr — the discrepancy exceeded the winning margin.

Complaints against the discrepancies, according to the ADR petition, prompted the ECI to issue, on June 9, a new version of the App, with fresh turnout figures. The discrepancies disappeared, quite miraculously, in five of the six constituencies where the lag between the voter turnout and votes counted was more than the winning margin. The only exception was Anantnag, where the recalibration of the turnout figure led to the discrepancy widening, rather hilariously, by another 4,000 votes.

To rule out misreporting and wrong data entry for the App, the ECI was asked to provide Form 17C, which is issued to every candidate and cites the precise count of votes polled. A high percentage match between the figures in Form 17C and those in the App would have implied that the ECI cannot fathom the working of its EVMs.

It is the ECI's lack of transparency that spawns conspiracy theories. Will our imagination not work overtime at the news that the ECI destroyed the Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail, or VVPAT, used for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, even though these are required to be kept for a year after the polls are completed, as the Quint website reported? This was as bad as destroying invaluable evidence, as there were eight cases of a mismatch between the EVM and VVPAT counts in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

A BJP victory, for sure, cannot be ascribed to EVM manipulation. Nor should that party's defeat have us vouch for the credibility of the EVM, which does perform erratically, beyond the ECI's comprehension.

The writer is a senior journalist

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