Counting of votes: Election Commission has devised elaborate procedures for counting of votes. Transparency of process lies in randomisation of officials and involvement of political parties at every stage.
Election Results 2019: Conducting general election in India is no less than a miracle in the eyes of the world. India, being the second most populous nation on earth and being the largest democracy, has over 900 million eligible voters. More than the combined population of USA, Indonesia and Brazil. Managing the voting and counting process has become an extremely complex affairs as the system has to be foolproof that provides least opportunities to any political party or ruling dispensation to subvert the system to its advantage.
Since 2004, the Election Commission has been using electronic voting machines (EVMs) in all national and assembly elections instead of paper ballots for smooth conduct of elections and early declaration of results. The Technical Expert Committee (TEC), an expert group in the commission, devises ways for improving the designs and standards used in EVM machines to make them more efficient and foolproof.
Why there is so much controversy over election results
Twenty-two opposition parties, including the Congress, have utilised almost every avenue, including filing petitions in the Supreme Court, to nudge the poll panel to follow the methods for counting as demanded by them.
Let’s take a look at how votes are counted in India and whether there is any scope for manipulation of results as alleged by opposition parties.
Date, time and place of counting
Election Commission of India announces the date of counting while issuing the notification announcing the beginning of election process. The commission has fixed May 23, 2019 for counting of all 7 phases of Lok Sabha election and assembly election in 4 states, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim and by-elections 34 assembly seats.
Place of Counting
In case of assembly elections, there is just one place of counting for each Vidhan Sabha seat which is decided by the concerned Returning Officer (RO). However, in case of Lok Sabha elections, there can be several places where the counting of votes for a particular Lok Sabha constituency can be conducted. For example, every Lok Sabha seat in national capital Delhi has 10 assembly seats in it, therefore the counting for a Lok Sabha seat can be done at more than one places. However, election commission prefers that counting should be done under the direct supervision of Returning Officer that is possible at one place only.
Time for starting the counting process
Official time for starting the counting process is fixed at 8 am. However, poll officials and counting agents appointed by political parties and candidates reach counting centres before 5 am in the morning so that they can be briefed and take their places at counting tables by 6 am.
Opening of Strong Rooms
The commission has directed that the strong room where EVMs are kept after voting should be opened in the presence of returning officers, assistant returning officers, election agents and ECI observers. The seal of the lock should be checked and then broken after making necessary entries in the log book. Entire proceeding is video-graphed with due date-time stamping.
Then the names and numbers of candidates are put in the form 17C in the same order as in the ballot paper (Form 7).
What is counted first: Postal Ballot or votes recorded in EVMs
As per the rules framed by the Election Commission, electronically transmitted postal ballots (ETPBs) and Postal Ballots are counted first. Officials sort out valid and rejected papers, count them and keep them safe.
Counting of votes recorded in EVMs can start half an hour after the start of counting for postal ballots.
If there is simultaneous counting for Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha elections then first 7 tables of total 14 tables will be reserved for EVMs of the assembly constituency and remaining 7 tables, from table number 8 to 14 will be assigned to EVMs for the Lok Sabha seat.
In case the victory margin is less than total number of postal ballots received then a mandatory re-verification of all postal ballots is carried out.
What’s the process for opening the EVM bags
After the seal of strong room is broken and the lock is opened, the EVMs are taken to the counting hall under escort and distributed at the counting tables.
Before the cases carrying EVMs are opened, the seals (address tags) put on them by the presiding officer at the booth are checked and counting agents deployed by candidates and political parties are also allowed to check and verify the seals put on EVM bags.
Once the case carrying the EVM is opened, serial numbers of EVMs are checked to verify whether it was the same machine which was supplied to the concerned polling station or not. Thereafter the poll officials verify the seals affixed on ‘candidate set section’ and ‘result section’. These seals have their respective serial numbers to prevent tampering.
The serial number on the seal is then matched with serial number given in the paper seal account prepared by the presiding officer in Item 10 of Part I of Form 17C.
Counting agents deployed by political parties are allowed to compare the serial number available at the counting table with the serial number of paper seal affixed on the machines. If the serial numbers don’t match then the returning officer matches the serial number of unused paper seals returned by the concerned presiding officer to find out any clerical mistakes in the entry of numbers.
If the RO decides that the machine has been tempered with then it will be kept aside and the votes recorded in it will not be counted.
Role of micro-election observers
The election commission also deploys one additional officer of central government or central PSU as micro-observer at each counting table to prevent any potential manipulation by state machinery.
Once the counting officials are satisfied that the machine is not tampered with then they turn on the machine and paper slip affixed on the ‘Result’ button is pierced through and the button is pressed.
The total vote recorded for each candidate and NOTA are displayed on machine. These votes are then recorded by the counting supervisor in ‘Part II-Result of Counting’ in Form 17C’.
The result button can be pressed several times to enable counting agents of political parties to note down the numbers and then machine is switched off and sealed.
Completion of Form 17C
The counting supervisor records the number of votes in part II – Result of Counting of Form 17C. He also tallies the total number of votes polled in Item 6 of Part I of that form that was prepared by the concerned presiding officer to find any discrepancy in the total number of votes polled as recorded in the machine and recorded in the part I of the form to find out any discrepancy.
If there is no discrepancy then after completing the Part II of form 17C in all respects, the officer signs the form and get it countersigned by the candidate or his counting agents and hands them over to the Returning Officer.
The Returning Officer countersigns the form and hands them over to the officer that is compiling the result sheet in Form 20.
Mandatory Verification of VVPAT slips
As per the Supreme Court order, paper slips of VVPAT machines from 5 randomly selected polling stations from each assembly segment of a Lok Sabha constituency, will be used for tallying them with votes registered in the EVM machines.
This randomisation will be done through a draw of lots in presence of counting agents deployed by political parties.
The verification of VVPAT paper slips will be done in specially prepared VVPAT counting booths and this entire process is videographed.
In this process, six data points are tallied: name of state, number and name of assembly/parliamentary constituency, number and name of assembly segment in case of Lok Sabha seat, serial number and name of polling station, unique id of control unit and unique id of VVPAT.
Then the officer in-charge of compiling the results and preparation of final result sheet makes the entries in the form showing the votes polled by each candidate polling station wise. And the number of test votes in VVPAT and tendered votes are also recorded in their respective columns in the form 20. And these entries are announced so that candidates and their agents can record them.
Compilation and announcement of Results
After compilation and announcement of result, any candidate or his election agent or counting agent may apply in writing to the concerned returning officer (RO) for counting the printed VVPAT paper slips in any or all polling stations. Then the officer will have to decide the issue and he can allow the counting of VVPAT paper slips of any or all polling stations. The commission has directed that any decision of the returning officer must be recorded in writing along with the reasons.
Randomisation of counting officials
Election Commission mandates posting of counting supervisors and counting assistants in such a random manner that a particular counting official will come to know of the assembly constituency and the table assigned to him only upon arrival at the counting centre on the day of counting.
Special observers appointed by the commission and district election officers conduct the process of randomisation 5 am in the morning of counting day so no one can come to know about the exact table or assembly constituency before the assignment of duty. The process can be done manually or by computer through a draw of lots. Ordinarily, officers don’t work in shifts as the counting process is completed within 6-8 hours.