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Why the Proposal to Have Remote Voting Machines Could Be Concealing More Than It Reveals

The proposal for remote voting for migrant resident voters (MRIs) is not new has its origins in an older proposal, to allow Non-Resident Indians to vote. There are serious issues with this.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) has announced a new initiative to introduce a ‘remote voting machine (RVM) system’ for migrant voters via its letter on December 28, 2022 and invited all recognised national (8) and regional (57) political parties for a discussion on this issue on January 16, 2023. It asked them to convey their “views on issues highlighted in the letter for legal, administrative and statutory changes to bring in clarity of the subject, by January 31, 2023” in a specified format.

Official reports from the commission termed the meeting as successful but other reports said the scheduled demonstration did not happen as almost all opposition parties disagreed or found fault with the ECI’s proposals.

The evolution

The latest proposal for the RVM system for migrant voters has not come out of nowhere, although the EC’s letter of December 28, 2022 refers only to its concern for the low voter turnout, the inability of migrants to vote as a cause of the low voter turnout, and to a judgment of the Supreme Court (Dr. Shamsheer V.P. vs Union of India) of June 25, 2015 as the prime causes for coming up with this proposal. A peep into some relatively short-term history, however, shows a somewhat different picture.

Actually, the process started in 2014 when the EC decided to work on permitting Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) to cast their votes remotely in response to requests from the Ministry of Overseas Affairs and Rajya Sabha MP Naveen Jindal. Postal voting was proposed as a solution and consultations with various groups were held. Some parties such as the Nationalist Congress Party supported the postal ballot option while others such as the Bharatiya Janata Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Communist Party of India did not agree with it.

The Congress had reservations about the postal ballot paper being sent electronically. However, it was the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) who had the strongest reservations saying that “diplomatic missions do not have the logistical wherewithal to handle attestation for a large number of overseas electors”, and that permission required of the host country for this might be tricky in non-democratic countries.

A 12-member committee was set up in 2014 to study mainly three options for voting by NRIs: voting by post, voting at an Indian mission abroad, and online voting. In 2015, this committee finally recommended the options of e-postal ballot and proxy voting to NRIs, rejecting the other two. E-postal ballot is a ballot paper that is sent to the voter electronically and returned to the returning officer by post. The law ministry accepted the recommendation on proxy voting and the Cabinet passed the proposal to amend the law.

A Bill to amend the Representation of People Act, 1950 and the Representation of People Act, 1951 to allow for proxy voting for NRIs was introduced in the Lok Sabha on December 18, 2017, and passed on August 9, 2018. However, the 16th Lok Sabha was dissolved while the Bill was awaiting Rajya Sabha’s approval, and therefore, it lapsed.

It was at this point in time that comments were made on the preference given to NRIs over MRIs (migrant resident Indians).

The matter rested there till November 2020 when the EC told the law ministry that it was “technically and administratively ready” to extend the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS) to NRI voters for elections in 2021 in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry. It was proposed that any NRI interested in voting through the postal ballot in an election will have to inform the returning officer (RO) at least five days after the notification of the election.

On receiving such information, the RO will dispatch the ballot paper electronically. The NRI voters will mark their preference on the ballot printouts and send it back along with a declaration attested by an officer appointed by the diplomatic or consular representative of India in the country where the NRI is resident. It was not clear if the voter was to return the ballot paper through ordinary post or drop it off at the Indian Embassy, which may then segregate the envelopes. Nothing was heard of the proposal since then.

The RVM system proposal

Now comes the RVM proposal as if it is a totally fresh initiative of the EC to increase the total voting percentage and being considerate of the migrants’ plight. There are several issues with this proposal.

1. Urgency of the EC’s desire to assist ‘domestic migrants’

EC’s letter of December 28, 2022 says that it had formed a “Committee of Officers on Domestic Migrants” which had a meeting with political parties on August 20, 2016. It then consulted other “experts” and “submitted its report in November 2016”. It has taken the EC a little over five years to discover that “empowering the migrant voters to exercise their franchise from their places of work entails a host of legal, statutory, administrative and technological interventions on a spectrum of issues…”

In addition, several issues are identified “requiring consultations for acceptable solutions to the complex problem of increasing voter participation beyond current level”.

2. Level of preparation and homework done by the EC

The issues “requiring consultations” are identified under the following heads:

  • Who is a domestic migrant?
  • What is remote voting?
  • How to implement a model code of conduct in remote locations (other states) where the election process is not going on?
  • How to provide a controlled environment to ensure secrecy of voting and inducement-free voting? How many such remote booths should be set up? Who should be appointed as polling personnel?
  • How to provide a facility of polling agents to candidates for voting at such controlled remote locations and ensure identification of voters to avoid impersonation?
  • A method of remote voting/voting technology:
    • Remote voting methods: Postal ballot (ETPBS), internet voting, or remote voting machine in line of EVMs.
    • How to count votes cast at remote booths and transmit to returning officers located remotely (in other state)?”

Of all of the above issues, the EC has presented suggested solutions for only the last one: an RVM system option. For the remaining five issues the EC does not mention any suggested solution and has requested the invited political parties for suggestions in a given format. This shows how well prepared the EC is to implement this proposed system.

3. Technical features of the RVM system are described in Annexure-I of the EC’s letter of December 28, 2022. The following points need clarification.

The very first item in the “proposed RVM voting method” says a “remote voter has to pre-register for remote voting facility by applying online/offline within a pre-notified time before elections with his home constituency RO.” This appears that the process expects a migrant voter to (a) either be computer- or IT-savvy enough to ‘pre-register’ with her ‘home constituency RO’ online or (b) pre-register ‘offline’, which in common understanding means to go to the ‘home constituency’ and pre-register with the ‘local’ or ‘home’ RO. Both these options are no different from the existing rules where the migrant voter has to either register herself at the place of work or go to the ‘home constituency’ to vote which are not at all practical for migrant voters.

If the very first step in the so-called ‘remote voting’ process is no different from the existing rules, then what is the point of the entire exercise of the RVM system?

The second issue deals with what is called “RVM features”. The description says, “It is a standalone, non-networked system having the same security features as the existing Indian EVMs and provides the same voting experience to the voter as EVM. RVM system is essentially a modified version of the existing EVM system.” (Italics added). On the face of it, it sounds contradictory: If it is a “modified version”, then it is difficult to see how it can have the “same security features” and provide “the same voting experience”! There is obviously something missing here.

Various components of the RVM system described are supposed to have the same controls, functionality, etc. as the existing EVM system but are also said to have additional new features and parts. The entire explanation of the system appears to be convoluted and confusing.

The “proposed commissioning process” says inter alia that “…loading of symbols in [the] presence of representatives of political parties/candidates by RSLU onto RVVPAT, the symbols could be viewed on a screen/monitor by all stakeholders in real time as per the existing practice.” It is not clear whether it will be done at the remote location or the home location. Similar doubts exist in the “proposed voting process” and the “counting process of RVM”.

The entire process described in Annexure-I is very sketchy and does not appear to have been thought through in detail. It gives the impression of being a work-in-process. Given this lack of clarity in the letter of December 28, 2022 and its annexure, it is not possible to figure out what exactly did the EC plan to “demonstrate” in the proposed meeting on January 16, 2023.

Two serious concerns

The letter of December 28, 2022 raises two other serious concerns.

1. Conflict of interest

The letter of December 22, 2022 says, “Accordingly, the Commission has been working with two public sector units, who are manufacturing existing EVMs, i.e., Bharat Electronic (sic) Limited (BEL) and Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) to develop a robust, failproof and efficient stand-alone system for remote voting based on existing EVMs, under the guidance of the Technical Expert Committee.”

In a letter of January 7, 2023, addressed to the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and the two Election Commissioners, a retired secretary to the Government of India, E.A.S. Sarma, inter alia wrote the following:

“A far more serious issue is the conflict of interest in the case of the CPSE, Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL), on whose credentials the integrity of the entire electoral system based on the EVM technology so precariously rests. The BEL, as a premier CPSE par excellence, has outstandingly competent technical personnel. Their credentials are unquestionable. However, the ruling political party at the Centre has appointed at least three Directors on BEL’s Board of Directors, Shri Mansukhbhai Shamjibhai Khachariya, Dr P.V. Parthasavrathi, and Dr Shiv Nath Yadav” who have contested elections as nominees of the ruling political party at the Centre.”

Sarma goes on to write that “this information has been gathered from the public domain” and while he has “no intention whatsoever to question their integrity in any manner”, he does “feel seriously concerned about the possible conflict of interest that arises from this, in the management of such an excellent CPSE, directly involved in developing the source code for operating the EVMs, around which the vulnerability or otherwise of the EVMs so critically revolves.”

He further writes that “this has clearly tilted the level-playing ground between the political parties, in favour of the ruling political executive”, and that “it is highly objectionable since appointment of persons with political affiliations violates the CPSE guidelines”.

2. ‘Stakeholders’ in elections?

Paragraph 12 of the EC’s letter of December 28, 2022 says, “In the context as above and desirability of ensuring that domestic migrants are able to exercise their franchise to improve participation and deepen democracy further, the Commission desires to solicit views of the Recognised National and State Political Parties, as the most important stakeholders in the electoral process, in the matter to effectively recommend required legislative changes, changes in administrative procedures and finalise voting method/technology.” (Italics added).

Earlier in the letter, in paragraph 9, the letter refers to its own “Committee of Officers on Domestic Migrants”, “studies made by Tata Institute of Social Sciences on the subject of domestic migrants and issues in election participation”, and “deliberations with various relevant Ministries/Organisations and experts.” (Emphasis added).

It is noteworthy that citizens/voters or migrants find no place among the stakeholders in the election process in the reckoning of the EC. Undoubtedly, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences is an extremely reputed institution but it seems unlikely that it is the best repository of knowledge on domestic migrants. There are organisations who have been working exclusively on domestic migrants for many years and who are not so difficult to locate.

As a matter of fact, one of the former chief election commissioners, S.Y. Quraishi, has actually quoted a survey by one such organisation, Aajeevika Bureau, in his piece in the Indian Express published on January 17, 2023 on this issue. It is interesting that the EC was not able to locate what a former CEC could! Of course, the EC does not think it is necessary to share exactly who are the “experts” that it consults.

The last word

It is not that citizens have not spoken on this issue. There has been a Citizens’ Commission on Elections (CCE) consisting of eminent citizens which was set up on March 5, 2020, and its findings were published in early 2022 in a volume titled ‘Electoral Democracy: An inquiry into the Fairness and Integrity of Elections in India’. The CCE also sent a copy of its findings to the EC. This volume also has a 16-page chapter titled ‘Is the Indian EVM and VVPAT System Fit for Democratic Elections?’ written by two well-known professors of Computer Science and Engineering at an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).

It is critical to remember that all the unresolved problems of the existing EVM and VVPAT system will get carried over to the so-called RVM system and the confidence of citizens in the electoral system will possibly go down further.

Two speculations

It has been speculated in some quarters that this announcement of the RVM system for domestic migrants is a mere smokescreen for two hidden objectives. One is to extend the voting facility to NRIs which was the original intention, and the other is to deflect attention away from the problems of the EVM-VVPAT system. It is not possible to make any serious comment on these issues since there is no real, dependable information available on them.

 

This article was originally published in The Wire.