Image: The Hindu
The 2019 Lok Sabha Elections are on in full swing and all parties are trying their best to woo voters with their promises, manifestos and as is always the case, lot of rhetoric. Most parties are also putting a focus on young voters. More than 600 Million young Indians aged 25 or less will vote to choose a Member of Parliament for their constituency – nearly 84 million of them for the very first time.
However, what happens when malfunctioning EVM combined with un-supportive and threatening ballot staff deny a young voter the right to choose for herself?
This is exactly what seems to have happened to 25 year old Sneha Jain (name changed on request) at a polling booth in Maharashtra earlier today. Speaking to SMIW, Sneha, a working professional from Pune, told us that she went to the Bibvewadi polling booth at Seetaram Bibave School to cast her vote. Leaving her handbag with her phone outside, she went in and by her own admission, tried to vote for the candidate of her choice by pressing the button next to the candidate’s party symbol on the electronic voting machine (EVM). However, to Sneha’s surprise, the voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) showed another party’s symbol as her chosen option, indicating that the vote had been cast for the wrong candidate.
The symbol wrongly chosen was the Lotus, which belongs to the Bhartiya Janta Party or, the BJP.
Shocked at the development, and sure that she had not voted for the BJP candidate, Sneha retrieved her bag and notified the presiding officer – a man somewhere in his fifties by her description – about the incident. At this, the presiding officer responded saying that such an event was impossible, because they had checked and re-checked the machines many times. Other members of the booth team also got involved in the conversation and, reportedly surrounded Sneha to insist that it must be she who made a mistake, not the EVM. On further insistence, the ballot officer told Sneha that there are paper ballot forms available where she could register a physical vote, which would then be cross-checked with the machine.
At this point, Sneha pulled her phone out to start an audio recording, because she sensed something was not right. The officer immediately asked her to put the phone inside her bag, and she did that. However, the audio recording continued. She has made the recording available to SMIW and, having heard it in detail, we can attest that the voices on tape narrate an account identical to what the voter has recounted.
At the same point, another man in his late thirties, wearing an official EC badge came up and threatened Sneha that if she insisted on registering a complaint and going through the paper ballot process, she could face imprisonment of up to six months – if no error in the EVM was found. She asked why this would be so, the man allegedly misinformed the voter that this was the legal procedure under “Section 49A of the Election Commission.”
It is to be noted here that there is a Section 49A in the Conduct of Elections Rule, 1961. However, that Section merely states that “Every electronic voting machine shall have a control unit and a balloting unit and shall be of such designs as may be approved by the Election Commission.” There is no mention of a penalty or punishment whatsoever.
Additionally, there is also a Section 49P under the same set or Rules which states that “If a person representing themselves to be a particular elector seeks to vote after another person has already voted as such elector, (s)he shall, on satisfactorily answering such questions relating to their identity as the presiding officer may ask, be, instead of being allowed to vote through the balloting unit, supplied with a tendered ballot paper which shall be of such design, and the particulars of which shall be in such language or languages as the Election Commission may specify.”
It should also be noted that there are provisions available for a voter to cancel their previous vote and vote again by filling the form 17B available with the presiding officer. Last but not the least, the presiding officer can replace a malfunctioning EVM if reported by a voter.
So, while the presiding officer and other officials did inform Sneha of the option to use a paper ballot to cast her vote again, they also misled and threatened her with possible legal action, discouraging her from doing so.
“The electoral system should help citizens and not push us out. My vote didn’t count this time. No one was helpful. Instead, when I complained, I was discouraged, threatened and misinformed into surrendering my fundamental right.” said Sneha.
The question which arises here is why would they do that?
Why would a group of officials present at the polling booth, including the presiding officer, not only fail to inform a young voter that as per the Election Commission guidelines, there is a provision available for her to fill out a from cancelling her previous vote and cast it again, but also that it is within their ambit to replace an EVM if a malfunction is reported? Why would they instead threaten the voter with made up legal penalties and discourage her from casting a vote for the candidate she wanted to?
Besides these serious questions, another grave concern, which various political leaders and activists have been raising for a while now – that being, the possibility of manipulating EVMs to rig an election.
Despite these concerns, research and even demonstrations, the Election Commission has maintained that it is not possible to manipulate an EVM to influence election results. However, over the past few days, since the Lok Sabha polling began, there have been a number of reports of EVM malfunction where they are said to be allocating votes of other parties to BJP – sometimes even more votes than were actually cast!
Is there a bigger nexus at play here with EVMs manipulated to vote for one party, which despite lies, false claims, hate-peddling and jingoist rhetoric knows that it has failed to provide governance and economic stability and as a result, is in real danger of being voted out? Meanwhile, the EC looking the other way even as polling officials present at booths threaten and mislead voters who challenge the faulty machines?
To borrow from everyone’s favourite prime time yeller – the nation wants to know.
This article was written with inputs from Arpan Panicker, a Pune based campaigner, learning consultant and author of the book Wordscapist, The Myth. Arpan is a friend of the aggrieved voter in question and helped her narrate and document her experiences.