Source: 
The New Indian Express
https://www.newindianexpress.com/explainers/2024/Jun/02/counting-the-peoples-verdict-in-democracy
Author: 
Express News Service
Date: 
02.06.2024
City: 

Political parties and the civil society have since pored over the absolute number of votes polled and come up with some interesting findings.

With the polling part of the general elections done and dusted, the suspense now is on the people's mandate. It will be known on June 4 when the votes are counted.

The Election Commission of India last week released the absolute number of votes polled in each constituency till the sixth and the penultimate phase, after shutting the door on the demand by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) for release of granular polling data in the Supreme Court.

Explaining its U-turn, the poll panel said it felt strengthened by the Supreme Court’s observations and verdict. The court had rejected the plea to publish polling station-wise voter turnout data within 48 hours of voting and uploading copies of Form 17C, saying "granting interim relief would mean allowing the final relief" in the main petition that is pending before a different bench since 2019. "This brings upon the Commission a higher responsibility to serve the cause of electoral democracy with undeterred resolution," it said.

Days before releasing the absolute data, the ECI sought to mark its territory in its affidavit in the Supreme Court. It said it was not statutorily mandated to put out the voting data, yet it was providing approximate percentages in real time through a voter turnout app to promote fairness and transparency. But the app data was subject to human error, which was why the matter came to the court. Justice Dipankar Datta concurred and cited a Hindi proverb aa bail mujhe maar (itself inviting trouble) to characterise the poll panel's predicament.

Data analysis

Political parties and the civil society have since pored over the absolute number of votes polled and come up with some interesting findings. For example, there was lesser polling in 124 of the 485 constituencies till the sixth phase, yet the overall turnout percentage this year was the same as in 2014 and a little less than in 2019. Then there were two contrasting interpretations on the comparatively low voter turnout by veteran politicos Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Kishor. While Yadav saw the BJP taking a big hit at the hustings, Kishor thought otherwise.

Counting process

With the exit poll verdict adding to the guessing game at a time when the neutrality of the poll body is under the microscope, let's understand the existing mechanism of counting votes and the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPATs) paper slips. For starters, counting of votes is done under the supervision of the Returning Officer of the constituency in the presence of the candidates or their agents. It can be done simultaneously at more than one place and/or at more than one table at the same place. Each candidate can appoint counting agents for each of the counting places and tables. The whole process is described in great detail in the ECI's handbooks and manuals.

To take muscle power out of the equation, no person having security cover provided by either the Union or the state governments is allowed to act as a counting agent even if they surrender or decide to relinquish their security. Such persons cannot enter the counting hall with or without the security personnel. Only if such an individual is a contesting candidate and gives an undertaking that he has surrendered his armed security personnel voluntarily so as to sit in the counting hall, he/she can be allowed entry. As a result, the appointment of people like a sitting minister or MP/MLA or Mayor or Chairperson of Municipality/Zila Parishad/Panchayat Union, etc or chairpersons and members of Central PSUs/State PSUs and government bodies/Corporation as counting agents is ruled out.

Number of counting agents

Each candidate can appoint as many counting agents as there are counting tables and one more to watch counting at the Returning Officer's table. Not more than 14 tables plus one table for the Returning Officer can be provided in one counting hall. However, extra tables are needed for counting postal ballots and Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballots (ETPBS), so candidates get to appoint additional counting agents for each such extra table. Counting agents are not allowed to carry mobile phones/I-Pad/laptop or any such electronic device that can record audio or video inside the counting centre. In states where elections to the Lok Sabha and the legislative assembly were held together, the counting is done simultaneously, assembly segment-wise.

First up, postal ballots

Postal ballots are of two types - ETPBs and normal postal ballot papers. ETPBs are exclusively meant for Service voters and are sent by the Returning Officer online. But the return journey of the cast ballot paper is through the physical postal system. As for the normal postal ballot paper, it is meant for various categories of electors like officials on election duty, senior citizens above 80 years, persons with disabilities, etc. There is no difference in the counting process of both these categories after the ballots are validated. A postal ballot is rejected if no vote is recorded thereon; or if votes are given on it in favour of more than one candidate; or if it has been so badly mutilated that its identity cannot be established. If the eventual victory margin is less than that of the rejected postal ballots, the Returning Officer shall personally re-examine all those postal ballots to confirm the rejection was appropriate.

Control unit

A control unit records the polled votes through the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM). The unit alone is required for counting of votes. It has provisions for displaying the data recorded in the machine, like the number of candidates, total number of votes polled, votes secured by each candidate, etc. The Result compartment of the unit has the following features:

  • Close button on the left side. It is pressed at the end of polling to shut down the machine.

  • Two buttons in the middle — Result and Print. As the name suggests, the Result button reveals the outcome of polling in the particular EVM on a display screen. The Print button is for printout of the detailed result. To print, a special gadget has to be attached to the unit.

  • Clear button on the right. It wipes out all data recorded in the machine, when it is no longer required.

Counting of EVM votes

After 30 minutes of the commencement of postal ballot counting, the EVM counting can start. The control units of EVMs are distributed to the counting tables in sequence. For example, the control unit of the first EVM of polling station No. 1 goes to table No. 1, that of the first EVM of polling station No. 2 is placed on table No. 2 and so on. Counting begins after due diligence, including verification of seals on the control units. That is when counting agents are expected to be extra vigilant so as to ensure the units have not been tampered with. Total votes from 14 EVMs on 14 tables constitute a round of counting. Each round can begin only after counting in the previous round is over.

In the case of simultaneous elections, the total number of counting tables are divided into two groups of equal number of tables. The first group is for the assembly election and the other for the Parliamentary election. If the total number of counting tables is 14, in the first round of counting, the first control unit for the assembly election used at polling station No 1 is given to table number 1 and the first control unit used for Lok Sabha election at polling station No 1 goes to table number 8, which is the first table for the counting of votes for the Parliamentary election. At the close of each round, the observer would randomly select any two control units in the round to see if their polling data matches what was taken on record.

Result button

After satisfying themselves that the seals on the control unit have not been tampered with, the votes recorded therein are counted. For this purpose, the following procedure is followed by the counting supervisor:

  • The power switch provided in the rear compartment of the control unit is switched on. The "ON" lamp in the display section of the control unit will glow green.

  • A Green Paper Seal over the Result button provided beneath the upper aperture of the inner cover of the result section is pierced through.

  • The Result button is then pressed. It reveals the total votes recorded against each candidate and that for the NOTA (None of the above) option in the display panel of the control unit.

  • The result is displayed sequentially, candidate-wise.

If the control unit does not display the result, its battery is replaced to check if the snag is in the power source. If it still does not work, the unit is shut and stored in the Returning Officer's custody. If there are more issues with some of the other control units, they too are set aside while the rest of the control units are processed. If in the final reckoning, the winning margin is greater than the cumulative count of votes polled in the control panels with problems, the latter are not taken into account and the result is declared. But if the margin is equal or less, the corresponding VVPATs of all dodgy control units are counted to arrive at the final tally.

VVPAT slip verification

Verification of VVPAT paper slips of randomly selected five polling stations per assembly segment of a Parliamentary constituency is mandatory. Those five polling booths are selected by a draw of lots. The verification of the paper slips is done sequentially i.e., one after another. If there is mismatch between the control unit's figure and the VVPAT's count, the slips are recounted till they tally. If the mismatch persists, the VVPAT slip count prevails.

The whole process is videotaped.

Key ?

Who appoints counting agents?

Counting agents are appointed by the candidate or his/her election agents.

How many counting agents can be appointed by a candidate?

Each candidate can appoint as many counting agents as the number of counting tables plus one for the Returning Officer’s table.

Who is eligible to be appointed as a counting agent?

Any person who is a citizen of India and aged above 18 years can be appointed. However, those having government security cover or government employees are not eligible to be counting agents.

Is there any particular mark required by law to be made by a voter to indicate his / her vote on a postal ballot?

There is no such specification. Any mark can be accepted as valid if the intention of the voter is clear.

What is the SOP in cases where the margin of victory is less than the number of the rejected postal ballots?

In such cases, the Returning Officer must personally re-verify all rejected postal ballots to satisfy himself/herself that the decision to reject was valid.

When can EVM counting start?

It can start 30 minutes after the commencement of postal ballot counting.

Can a candidate seek counting of VVPAT slips?

After announcement of the result sheet entries, any candidate/ agent may apply in writing to the Returning Officer for counting the printed VVPAT paper slips in any or all polling stations. If such an application is received, the Returning Officer should pass a clear order on whether or not to count them.

What’s in Form 17C

Form 17C captures the voting record of each polling booth. There are as many Form 17Cs as there are polling stations in a constituency. Part 1 contains information on the total number of electors assigned to the polling station, total voters as entered in the Register for Voters, number of voters who decided not to record votes under Rule 49-O, number of voters not allowed to vote, the total number of votes recorded by the EVMs, etc. Part 2 gives a break-up on the number of votes for each candidate to record the election result.

Part 1 is filled by the presiding officer after polling. A copy of it is provided to the polling agent of a candidate. The polling agent and the presiding officer have to sign the form, which is then stored in a separate cover in a ‘Strong Room’. The agent gets it back on the day of counting.

The counting supervisor records the number of votes for each candidate in Part 2 of Form 17C. He/she also checks if the total in Part 2 tallies with the total number of votes recorded in Part 1. If there is a match, the counting supervisor signs Part 2 and gets it signed by the candidates/agents. Else, he/she escalates it to the Returning Officer to fix the anomaly.

The ADR had approached the Supreme Court seeking the uploading of all Form 17C on the ECI website within 48 hours of polling, saying it would address public suspicion surrounding the electoral process. But the ECI said images of Form 17C ran the risk of digital manipulation as also creating confusion because it does not record the postal ballot data. Besides, counting centres do not have any internet connection so as to tamp down fears of EVM tampering. And scanning and uploading would need more manpower. Not doable at least in the ongoing general elections, the ECI said.

Appointment of counting officials

For each table earmarked for counting of votes in EVMs, the Returning Officer shall appoint a counting supervisor (Gazetted Officer or equivalent), a counting assistant, counting staff from MTS/Group D employees, and one micro observer. For each table for counting of postal ballots, the Returning Officer shall appoint one Assistant Returning Officer, one counting supervisor (Gazetted or equivalent), two counting assistants (Gazetted Officer or equivalent) and one micro observer. In addition, the Returning Officer shall appoint two micro observers and one additional counting staff to assist the observer. All such officials are picked through three rounds of randomisation to remove the possibility of bias.

Barricading counting tables

Barricades or wire mesh is provided for each counting table so that the EVMs are not physically approachable by the counting agents. But the agents get to view the whole counting process at the counting table.

Source: ECI’s Handbook for counting agent, 2023

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