Remote voting, Election Commission's credibility and a slew of unanswered questions
While the Modi government and the ECI seem in a hurry to introduce remote voting, the proposal fails to inspire confidence among opposition parties and the electorate
The idea of allowing proxy voting or remote voting by non-resident Indians (NRIs) has been on the table for many years. Both the Union government and the Election Commission of India have been keen on it. The proposal was later extended to domestic migrants who are unable to go back and cast their votes in their home constituencies for various reasons.
In February 2020, the EC revealed that a “model of an Aadhaar-linked electronic voting system that would enable electors to cast their votes from any part of the country— irrespective of where they are registered to vote—or even abroad” was being prepared by the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. The system based on blockchain technology would be integrated with the Commission’s ERO Net, officials had explained.
The system would allow a voter registered in Delhi but living in any other part of the country, to cast their vote electronically. To start with, such remote voting would be allowed at designated polling booths in different cities, and once it finds acceptance and approval, the system could be rolled out for overseas electors.
As justification, it was cited that the Indian diaspora across the globe was 1.35 crore strong, many of them travelling abroad on short-term work. Currently the ECI does allow enrolled overseas citizens to vote in person at the polling station in the constituency where s/he is registered as an overseas voter. In the last general election in 2019, as many as 98,844 overseas electors had registered to cast their votes, ECI records show. But only 25,606 actually did so. The poll panel argued that the prohibitive cost of travelling had kept most overseas electors away.
A Bill to allow proxy voting by NRIs was passed in the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19) but lapsed after it was never introduced in the Rajya Sabha. In 2020, the ECI approached the government to permit NRIs to vote via postal ballots, similar to the system used by service voters, i.e., the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS), which allows registering their mandate on a downloaded ETPB and sending it to the returning officer of the constituency.
In the 2014 parliamentary elections, 11,846 NRIs had registered as overseas voters but only a fraction turned up to vote. Of the registered overseas electors, 90 per cent are said to be from Kerala. Other states having a significant number of registered overseas voters are Gujarat, Punjab and Tamil Nadu.
The concept note circulated by the ECI to political parties last month was said to have taken into account legal, operational, administrative and technical challenges for remote voting. Various figures of the number of migrant voters within the country but who are unable to vote have been bandied around. While the 2017 Economic Survey put the number of ‘internal migrants’ at around 14 crore, the ECI this month claimed the number was 30 crore at a conservative estimate.
The ball park figure, it appears, was arrived at by the number of voters who did not exercise their franchise in the 2019 general election, when the polling percentage was 67 per cent.
While physical voting in embassies and postal ballots are allowed by several countries, in India the sheer number of voters and the size of the country pose challenges which other nations do not face.
Most political parties have voiced their scepticism about the figures and the reason cited for low turnout. South Mumbai Lok Sabha constituency, for example, has traditionally recorded among the lowest voter turnout in the country. But the constituency is where the country’s rich and wealthy live and where the number of migrants, though never calculated, is believed to be minuscule.
In 2020, the ECI wrote to the law ministry and claimed it was ‘technically and administratively ready’ to facilitate ETPBS for NRIs in the 2021 Assembly elections; but the external affairs ministry is believed to have flagged “huge logistical challenges” relating to identity verification of voters, absence of polling agents and the increased workload on its staff, among other things.
There are other reservations about remote voting (see box). “Polling agents from political parties posted at every booth act as watchdogs and guard against violations. Allowing [remote] polls across the country will deny opportunity to smaller and regional parties to arrange for polling agents to man the booths,” a DMK member was quoted as saying.
Jairam Ramesh, MP and communication chief of the Congress, issued a statement saying that there is already a trust deficit and the ECI must first dispel the doubts and re-establish its own credibility. “Trust in the electoral system is paramount for democracy to function.
The German Federal Constitutional Court struck down electronic voting machines (EVMs) in Germany in 2009 because the opacity of the machine cannot give a voter the confidence that his or her vote is being correctly recorded. In spite of their widespread use, EVMs have aroused much controversy in India. Unfortunately, fears of their misuse have not been systematically addressed,” the statement said.
Referring to the Gujarat assembly election in December 2022, Jairam Ramesh said, “In Gujarat this time we also saw suspicious voting numbers which showed that 10-12 per cent of voters cast their votes in the last hour of voting. This translates to an impossible 25-30 seconds being taken to cast each vote. You need a minimum of 60 seconds to cast a vote,” he said, adding, “Now imagine if these suspicious patterns can be extended via a multi-constituency voting machine to other locations. This would seriously undermine trust in the system.”
Following the reservations expressed by political parties on January 16 and criticism that the proposal was “sketchy and not so concrete” besides doubts over security, logistics and administrative challenges to remote voting machines, the demonstration of the machine was deferred and the ECI asked political parties to submit their views in writing by 28 February 2023.
The poll panel had roped in two PSUs— Bharat Electronic Limited (BEL) and Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL)—to develop a robust stand-alone system for remote voting. The proposal was:
1. Voters will pre-register for remote voting by applying online/offline within a pre-notified time
2. Voter details will be verified at the home constituency and the request for remote voting will be approved after verification
3. Special multi-constituency remote voting polling stations will be set up at the place where voters currently reside
Praveen Chakravarty, who heads the data analytics department of the Congress party and who was also present at the meeting, told National Herald that before rolling out the RVMs, the ECI needs to answer the following questions:
1. What is the exact number of migrants, living in various states? The ECI says that there are 30 crore migrants in the country, but the data is unreliable.
2. Will remote votes will be counted separately or be mixed with other votes?
3. How will the polling booths be decided for the migrants and how will the duplication of the same voter in two places be avoided?