With India’s elections over and exit polls predicting the return of the National Democratic Alliance to power, the political spotlight seems to be back on the reliability of electronic voting machines (EVMs). First, there were reports of EVM mishandling in Uttar Pradesh. Then images emerged on social media of EVMs in Bihar apparently being transported without security, raising questions over the possibility of tampering. The Election Commission (EC) debunked the reports, saying that EVMs were fully secure. Meanwhile, former president Pranab Mukherjee weighed in, expressing concern over “reports of alleged tampering of voters’ verdict". He said that the mandate of the people is sacrosanct and has to be above “any iota of reasonable doubt". In another development, the Supreme Court has dismissed a public interest litigation seeking 100% EVM verification, calling the petition “nonsense".
The drama will continue, much of it in the political arena. But the question of what should be done to address EVM doubts remains unanswered so far. This is unfortunate. Given the apex court’s fresh dismissal of a plea for enhanced efforts to check if e-votes match their paper trails, the EC is under no obligation to heed any such demand made by the 22 opposition parties that met the poll body on Tuesday. Their earlier suggestion that at least 25% of EVMs be verified had already been dismissed by the top court in April, but their new request was that paper votes be counted before EVM readings are taken of the particular machines picked at random for a double-check. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that those airing doubts are mostly opposition politicians. Yet, in a democracy, while the rules of play should hold firm, everyone needs to be taken along. It is the EC’s responsibility to ensure that every participant is convinced of the electoral system’s bona fides. Even a single voter left with the suspicion that his or her vote was not counted, is one voter too many. A good way to contain anxieties would be for the EC to cede some ground on the matter. A small increase over the five EVMs to be verified per assembly segment may not be too much to ask.
However, the number of EVMs to be paper-checked and the order of counting aren’t all that require clarity. What happens in the event of a discrepancy between an EVM tally and its paper trail? Would only that booth be flagged for a re-poll or the entire assembly segment? The opposition seems to favour the latter. Whether or not that is feasible, the confusion on such crucial procedures is something the country could have done without. Rules for such eventualities should have been framed long ago and publicized widely. The opposition’s criticism of the EC may be politically motivated and some parties may continue to protest no matter how amenable the EC proves to their demands. But given the high stakes—our democracy is being tested—the EC needs to demonstrate that it is alive to the dictum that elections must not merely be fair, but also seen to be fair. A willingness to accommodate all voices and explain its post-poll rules to everyone’s satisfaction (within reasonable limits) would strengthen public confidence in the institution and shield it from critics.