Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) have fundamentally altered the process of vote counting in India. Unlike ballot papers, EVMs do not necessitate a counting supervisor or assistant to individually tally all ballot papers. Rather, the machines themselves provide a tallied number of votes lodged on them. As results come in for Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh state assemblies, we take a look at how votes are counted on EVMs.
According to Election Commission’s (EC) guidelines, postal ballots begin the process of counting. EVMs are to be brought in for counting a minimum of half an hour after counting of postal ballots has already begun. Like postal ballots, EVMs are counted in rounds with the Returning Officer (RO) updating the results after every round of counting. When news channels and apps show “trends” and “leads”, the number they are referring to is the one updated by the RO at the end of a round of counting.
The EC also says that the last of the postal ballots need to be counted before the penultimate round of counting of EVMs. This means that the final two rounds of EVMs can be counted only after all the postal ballots in the constituency are already counted. In this way, the time it actually takes for counting votes on EVMs is dependent on how fast/slow the process of counting postal ballots (which need to be individually tallied by hand) has been.
After polling is complete, the Presiding Officers of the booth are supposed to immediately seal the machines and take them to a designated storage area, under observation of the candidate’s agents and with appropriate security measures.
Generally the storage area, also known as the strong room, is on the same premises as the one where counting is set to be scheduled. Storage of EVMs is done in a methodical manner in order to easily identify and locate any particular machine if required. After all the EVMs from all the polling centres are brought to the strong room, the room is locked and put under high security.
At each stage of this process, there is also a lot of papermark that creates a record of every single action of polling officers as well as the whole journey of the EVM.
Security is of utmost importance during storage as well as on the day of counting. There should be a smooth flow of EVMs between the respective strong rooms and the counting halls. Security forces provide security in multiple layers, with a barricaded inner-most cordon along the path of the route EVMs will take from their strong rooms to the counting halls. At each round of counting, a certain number of EVMs are brought to the counting halls, with a methodical system (generally according to serial number) being followed to determine the order in which counting is done.
The whole process of transportation is recorded by EC officials on a video camera. However, no one else is allowed near EVMs with any electronics. Counting rooms and strong rooms bar any mobile phones or computer devices to prevent hacking of EVMs (or the aspersion that they have been hacked). There is a separate room for the media with one EC official under the RO in charge of liaising with the media about all developments in the counting centres.
EVMs comprise three parts: Balloting unit(s) (BU), Control Unit (CU) and Voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT). The BU is what voters actually vote on: they have options for up to 16 candidates, and multiple BUs can be linked to one CU in case there are more than 16 candidates contesting polls. For the purposes of counting, the CU is what is most important– it is the part of the EVM where votes are actually registered and it is the CU which is brought to the counting hall for counting.
The VVPAT creates a paper trail for every vote counted, printing a tiny slip of paper corresponding to each vote polled. VVPATs are used to verify results on the CU. However, results on the CU are deemed valid even without VVPAT verification being done on the request of one or more candidates or randomly by observers to ensure the legitimacy of the process.
CUs are methodically distributed to various tables in the counting halls and taken out from their carrying cases after their seals are checked. After that, the CU undergoes a few more rounds of checks to ensure that it is indeed the right CU from the right polling station and has not been tampered with. If there is any suspicion of tampering or a wrong serial number, those CUs are kept aside. After officials are satisfied with the status of the CU, they can count the votes on it.
The counting process itself is very simple. The CU has a “result” button which needs to be pressed. On pressing, it displays the result on a display panel. Crucially, to ensure that all candidates and their counting agents are satisfied, the display panel is clearly shown to every single one present, including EC observers to independently note results down. Since counting agents themselves are not on the table but slightly behind with a wire mesh separating them from the table itself, this is the part of the process that often takes the longest. The counting supervisors have strict instructions to proceed only if everyone is satisfied.
After counting is done, EVMs are again sent to storage and kept such that they can be accessed once again in case of recounting.
Any candidate, their election agent or their counting agents may apply in writing to the RO to count the printed VVPAT paper slips in any or all polling stations. If such an application is made, the RO shall pass a speaking order on whether the VVPAT paper slips should be counted. If the RO decides to allow the counting of the VVPAT paper slips of any or all polling stations, such a decision of the RO must be recorded in writing along with the reasons thereof.
Some reasons that are to be considered are,
*Whether the total number of votes polled in that polling station is greater or lesser than the margin of votes between the winning candidate and the candidate making the application.
*Whether EVM had a problem and was replaced at that polling station during the poll.
*Whether there was any complaint about VVPAT not printing or complaints by any voter under Rule 49MA in that polling station during the poll.
There is also mandatory, random VVPAT verification done. In the case of the General and Bye-election to State Legislative Assemblies, verification of VVPAT paper slips is done at a randomly selected polling station in each Assembly Constituency. In the case of General and Bye-election to the House of the People, verification of VVPAT paper slips is done for a randomly selected polling station of each Assembly segment of the Parliamentary Constituency concerned or as directed by the Commission.
As the votes secured by each candidate and NOTA are displayed on the Display Panels of the Control Unit, the counting supervisor should record the number of such votes separately in respect of each candidate. He should also note down whether the total number of votes counted tallies with the total number of votes lodged (that is previously recorded).
After ensuring that there is no discrepancy and all counting agents are satisfied, the particular form is signed by all parties and the results are sent forward to the RO.
With the RO, there is an officer who is in charge of tabulating all results and displaying cumulative tallied vote totals that are coming in from all tables.
Along with partisan counting agents, all Observers will keep a close watch on the process of counting of votes and compilation of results. Towards this end, neither the Observer nor the ARO/RO or any other election official should leave the counting hall till the counting is completed and the result declared. Strict discipline should be maintained inside the counting premises and prompt action should be taken against anyone not observing the rules.
Observers have the authority to stop counting under certain circumstances where they feel that there is gross negligence or misconduct on part of counting officials with regard to following EC rules and guidelines. They can also stop counting if they feel that the polling process was itself heavily compromised.
After the counting has been completed in all respects, the Returning Officer has to proceed to make the formal declaration of the result of the election.