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Bridging the Trust Deficit in India’s Electoral Process

In Focus: Bridging the Trust Deficit in India’s Electoral Process

[Part of the Election Series by Aakhya Weekly]

By Ishita Singh

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The recent controversy surrounding Form 17C has ignited a significant debate in India’s electoral landscape, bringing to the forefront concerns about the transparency and integrity of the electoral process. Form 17C, a crucial document in the electoral procedure, records the total votes cast in each Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) and is a pivotal element in ensuring the credibility of election results. However, concerns and questions about the handling of voter data have led to judicial scrutiny and political discussions following a petition filed by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).

Amidst these developments, the opposition addressed a poignant letter to the Election Commission of India (ECI), raising concerns over the procedures for transparently disclosing details that come under Form 17C. The letter emphasizes the need for stringent measures to prevent chances of tampering or mishandling of data that could undermine the democratic process. In response, the ECI has taken a firm stance, asserting its commitment to transparency and accuracy in the electoral process. The Commission has outlined steps it intends to take to address the allegations and ensure that Form 17C procedures are adhered to stringently.

Understanding Form 17C

Form 17C is an official document mandated by the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, serving as the Account of Votes Recorded. It is divided into two parts: Part I details the total number of votes recorded at each polling station, while Part II contains the candidate-wise results of the counting at each polling station. The rules require the presiding officer to prepare a record of votes in Form 17C Part I at the end of polling and give a copy to each polling agent. After counting the votes, the returning officer must record the number of votes each candidate received in Part II of Form 17C.

However, not all candidates can afford to station polling agents at every booth in their constituency. Each constituency usually has 2,000 to 2,200 booths. Polling agents arrive by 5:30 a.m. on voting day for a dry run to check EVMs and serial numbers. Voting runs from 7 a.m. to around 6 p.m., after which they receive a copy of Form 17C. To cover all booths, a candidate requires at least two agents per booth, amounting to roughly 6,000 agents per constituency. These agents are usually compensated around ₹1,000 to ₹1,200 for meals and transport. Given the logistical challenges involved, smaller parties and independent candidates often struggle to bear the costs of deploying the necessary number of polling agents at each booth.

The ADR Petition: A Push for Immediate Transparency

The delay by the Election Commission (EC) in sharing the aggregate polling data of the first and second phases of the ongoing Lok Sabha elections has evoked serious questions from several quarters. The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) has filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India under Article 32 of the Constitution, seeking to ensure the integrity of the electoral process and the enforcement of fundamental rights under Articles 14, 19, and 21. The petitioner contended that there was a significant delay in the publication of voter turnout data by the Election Commission of India (ECI). Specifically, the data for the first phase of polling, held on April 19, was released after 11 days, and the data for the second phase, held on April 26, was released after 4 days. Furthermore, the petitioner noted that the ECI’s April 30 press release revealed a marked increase of approximately 5-6 percent in voter turnout compared to the initial percentages reported on the respective polling days. Highlighting the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) alleged delay in providing accurate and transparent election data, the petitioner is requesting that the ECI disclose authenticated voter turnout records by uploading scanned copies of Form 17C Part-I (Account of Votes Recorded) for all polling stations after each phase of polling in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Additionally, it seeks a tabulation of constituency and polling station-wise voter turnout figures in both absolute numbers and percentages, and the disclosure of candidate-wise results in Form 17C, Part-II, after the compilation of results.

The petition also raises concerns about discrepancies in voter turnout data, referencing past issues where the ECI withdrew voter turnout data for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections due to discrepancies. The ADR argues that without the disclosure of absolute voter numbers, the electorate cannot verify the accuracy of election results.

Strengthening Electoral Integrity

Transparency is the cornerstone of free and fair elections. Regularly uploading polling data, especially detailed voter turnout figures, is crucial for dispelling concerns regarding opacity in the electoral process. It is also a vital necessity in the elections as it ensures that all stakeholders—including the electorate, political parties, and observers—have access to accurate and timely information. This flow of information is essential for upholding the integrity of election results and fostering public confidence in both the electoral process and the institutions responsible for conducting elections. When data is released promptly and consistently, it minimizes the opportunity for rumors and speculation about potential tampering or inaccuracies. This is particularly important in elections in the modern day, where technologies like electronic voting machines (EVMs) are used. In these contexts, any delay or inconsistency in data can quickly lead to suspicions and allegations of foul play. Thus, it is not just a procedural necessity but a critical component of setting up a trustworthy electoral process.

On April 26, 2024, during the second phase of the 18th Lok Sabha elections, the Supreme Court dismissed all petitions calling for a return to paper ballots or 100 percent VVPAT verification. In their 56-page judgment, the justices explained the technology behind EVM-VVPATs and detailed the safeguards the Election Commission of India (ECI) has in place to ensure fair elections. By doing so, the Supreme Court has affirmed its confidence in the Election Commission of India (ECI) and dispelled any unfounded concerns. This presents an ideal opportunity for the ECI to address the issue of sharing valuable information on voter turnout across the various phases. By doing so, the ECI can work to bridge any existing trust deficits and reinforce its image as a robust and reliable institution dedicated to protecting and upholding the long-established electoral principles and values that are cherished by the nation.

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