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Opinion | Why we must trust but verify our vote count

For the sake of a democracy in which victory and defeat are accepted gracefully by all sides, we must aim for a consensus on the polling process. Even if that means a VVPAT over-count

Unlike the West’s somewhat more mature democracies, India has a poor record of electoral losers and runners-up making formal concession speeches to congratulate victors. In bitterly fought contests, it is especially crucial for all sides to accept the result for harmony to prevail. For decades, however, Indian polls have been marred by malpractices, allegations of rigging and even friction over the fundamental basis of our nationhood, and so expectations of grace remain unrealistic. Yet, the country has also waged a long battle for the integrity of its electoral process, and reforms are always welcome. Take the electronic voting machines (EVMs) that replaced paper ballots. While every ballot paper would typically be checked in the old days by representatives of various contestants on counting day, EVMs speeded it all up by flashing a tally at the push of a button. This being an opaque add-up, it’s no surprise that suspicions arose of it being possible to rig a machine by loading its chip with a preset tally. It was such doubts that ushered in the Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), by which a voter gets to see his or her choice printed on a little slip before it goes into a drop box destined for a counting centre, just in case the booth is picked for a parallel paper count of votes to check if it tallies with the EVM figure. The very sight of a slip is an assurance to voters. But still, not all political parties vouch for the credibility of the current process, as designed by the Election Commission (EC) and modified on an order of the Supreme Court. Democratic principles demand a consensus and the lack of one should bother us. The dispute is over which EVMs are to be double-checked. Doing this for all would not only be laborious, but would also delay the Lok Sabha results. The EC had originally wanted one polling booth’s EVM verified this way for every assembly segment of a constituency. In response to misgivings, the apex court has raised it to five booths. This is to be done for all seats across the country. The selection of booths has to be done after the polls close, of course, so that would-be vote thieves have no chance of finding out which will be verified. As for how many are to be verified, as statisticians know, so long as the selection of these booths is random—that is, each has an equal chance of being picked, post-polling—even a small sample verified is enough to create confidence in EVMs. As booths for verification are to be picked by a draw of lots in the presence of a particular seat’s contestants (or appointees), randomness is assured. Some opposition parties are still unsatisfied. The Congress, for example, has asked for half of all booths to be verified. In theory, this would do little to raise the accuracy of the verification system and would only stretch the EC’s resources on counting day. Yet, just as ordinary voters are puzzled by the technical details of EVMs, it’s unfair to expect people at large to grasp the logic of a random sample. It is also true that if anyone has doubts about the process, the canons of democracy call upon us to put these to rest. For the legitimacy of the electoral process in popular view, it is best that we do whatever it takes to assure every single voter that his or her vote counts.

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