A vote for reform: Election Commission collaborating with IIT-M on digital voting is a leap forward

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Published: February 19, 2020 12:30 AM

The ECI has said that the new mechanism would require voters to head to a service centre with a dedicated IP line, where a webcam and biometric readers will establish identity, and the voter can then cast her vote from thousands of kilometres away.

Digital voting will help overcome the problems of distance for NRI voters, and hesitations over proxy on part of the Indian legislature.Digital voting will help overcome the problems of distance for NRI voters, and hesitations over proxy on part of the Indian legislature.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) is collaborating with the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M), to work on technology that would allow voters to exercise their democratic right through a digital device. The technology will allow migrants to vote. The current dispensation at the Centre has talked of making it easier for NRIs eligible to vote in Indian elections to register their electoral opinion—at present, they can only cast their vote at the Indian embassy in the country of their residence. A legislation to allow proxy voting for NRIs also didn’t get much traction in Parliament. Digital voting will help overcome the problems of distance for NRI voters, and hesitations over proxy on part of the Indian legislature. It could even allow migrant workers within the country to cast their votes in polls in their native constituencies. The ECI has said that the new mechanism would require voters to head to a service centre with a dedicated IP line, where a webcam and biometric readers will establish identity, and the voter can then cast her vote from thousands of kilometres away. And, once the success of this is demonstrated, perhaps, it can pave the way for at-home voting for the larger voter base.

Blockchain technology, now being put to use for a raft of services from land-record verification and digitisation to banking, will be used to set up a two-way electronic voting system. There will be biometric verification, and the EC and the candidates will get details of the voter on a common, open ledger, while the vote—encrypted at the time of voting itself—will be read by a programme. This will ensure that voter identity is established while the vote is anonymised. This is the first time India will be experimenting with such technology. Other jurisdictions—some US states and Estonia, to name a few—have used digital voting. Indeed, Estonia has been using this for more than a decade now; voters’ national ID cards that come embedded with chips are read by a card reader, and the voter then casts her vote via a digital platform. West Virginia, the US, tied up with a voting platform called Voatz that allows voters to cast their votes via the app. India can tap into the Aadhaar database, which has biometric information if voter ID cards are linked to the unique ID.

The level of representation such digitally-mediated voting can facilitate, and the cost savings this could mean—from the drastically reduced need for security and other personnel deployment, booths, voting machines, power back-up, etc, especially in remote areas—make this an attractive proposition. However, the ECI must ensure that the system inspires the voters’ faith; there will be doubts about whether the system is hack-proof and doesn’t allow interference by enemy interests, whether it will preserve anonymity of the vote, and perhaps even whether the system will function as envisioned (the Iowa caucus debacle that the Democratic Party recently had to suffer in the US is a grim reminder of the possible handicaps of technology dependence). At the same time, with regards to migrant representation, the ECI perhaps should also weigh the merits of digital voting against portability of the voter ID—that is, should it facilitate voting by a migrant for her home constituency or should the migrant be enabled to vote where good governance matters to her the most, the city/town/state she works in?

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