It would cost the commission little to bring in minor improvements, that could have a big impact on the faith people have in its set-up.
Over the last few years, the Election Commission of India has been under constant pressure to prove the efficiency of its electronic voting machines in ensuring there could be no poll rigging. For any contestant not performing well at the elections, the voting machines have become a favourite punching bag.
Given this context and the energy spent on debunking claims of rigging and machine tampering, one would expect the Election Commission to be proactive and transparent on measures to improve the technological and logistical side of the polling process. After all, questions over electronic voting machines are far from just academic. They undermine people’s trust in India’s electoral process. Once this trust is lost, it will have serious consequences to institutional stability as it will erode the legitimacy of the elected.
While announcing the schedule for the Lok Sabha elections on March 13, the commission said all polling booths will have the voter-verified paper audit trail facility this time, a system in which voters can see on paper whether the machine has registered the same vote as the button they pressed. This decision to install the VVPAT machines in all polling stations came after years of back and forth in the Supreme Court, where the commission was unwilling to concede that the voting process through the electronic voting machines needed an additional layer of protection. The commission continued to assert that the machines cannot be manipulated in any manner.
On Monday, the Election Commission’s stubborn nature made its appearance in the Supreme Court yet again. While all polling stations are set to have the VVPAT facility, the commission had made it clear that the actual post-poll audit will happen in only one booth per Assembly segment. In other words, the voting on the electronic machines and the paper trail that the VVPAT machine leaves for every vote will be matched and verified for consistency in only one booth per Assembly segment.
The scientific basis of such a small sample size has been questioned time and again, which made the commission refer the matter to an expert committee. It is still unclear as to how the commission has acted on the expert committee’s report and what happened to its earlier attempts at seeking the advice of the Indian Statistical Institute.
When asked by the Supreme Court on Monday if it would increase the number of audits, the commission’s officer bluntly said that such an increase was not required. This prompted the bench to state that no institution should insulate itself from suggestions and improvements and asked the commission to file a detailed affidavit on the audit process by Thursday.
In a democracy, elections should not only be conducted in a free and fair manner, but it should be seen to be free and fair to protect public trust. If the commission does not realise the importance of securing this public trust, it could well end up strengthening the hands of those who want the country to return to ballot papers. The effort and resources that would be spent on minor improvements like the expanded VVPAT audits is insignificant compared to the loss India would incur if its poll process comes under a question mark.