Of all the Lok Sabha constituencies gone to polls so far — 425 out of 543 by Monday — Nizamabad in Telangana presented the Election Commission with the most remarkable challenge. When nominations closed for the April 11 first phase, the EC found itself faced with an unprecedented 185 candidates in Nizamabad — most of them troubled farmers contesting in protest — which was more than most Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) can handle. The EC considered going back to paper ballots for the 15.5 lakh voters but, in the end, conducted the biggest ever exercise carried out using EVMs.
The planning and conduct is being documented by the office of the Telangana Chief Electoral Officer so it can be consulted for similar cases in future. The EC is also in touch with a Guinness Book of Records team to recognise the effort as a world record.
What were the challenges, and how did the EC meet them:
Nizamabad voting: Getting the EVMs
A second generation (M2) EVM can accommodate 64 names, with 16 names per Ballot Unit connected to it. When nominations were scrutinised on March 26, the final list of 185 candidates was nearly three times the capacity of an M2 EVM. “It was a logistical nightmare. We had just 11 days to make to make quick, sound decisions and execute them,” an election officer said.
It briefly led to calls for paper ballots. “But that was never an option. With so much being said to discredit EVMs, this was an opportunity to prove their efficacy,” said an official.
On March 31, the EC decided to use third-generation (M3) EVMs, which can connect to 24 Ballot Units, with 384 names. But this threw up another challenge. Electronics Corporation of India Limited, the designated EVM manufacturer in Hyderabad, did not have enough M3 machines to supply at such short notice. An urgent delivery was then sought from Bharat Electronics Limited in Bangalore. The EVMs — 25,000 Ballot Units, 2,000 Control Units and 2,000 VVPATs — covered a distance of 781 km in two days in a convoy of 20 containers and reached Nizamabad on April 3.
The arrival of this new batch required several last-minute adjustments. “We had to figure out additional storage space. The existing arrangement was useless as we had our stock of M2 machines there. A warehouse and a college building were arranged at the last minute to store M3 EVMs,” the EC official said.
Close to 600 engineers and 2,000 personnel were deployed for the first-level check or FLC, mock poll and assigning of EVMs to different polling booths over three days.
Meanwhile, a team of senior EC officers was sent to Hyderabad on April 1 to chalk out a detailed action plan with the Telangana CEO, the Returning Officer and the concerned District Electoral Officers. The CEO visited Nizamabad on April 5 to review preparedness, and address the concerns of the candidates.
Setting up the EVMs in Telangana’s Nizamabad
At 16 names to a Ballot Unit, the 186 options — 185 candidates plus NOTA — meant that each EVM needed to be connected with an unprecedented 12 Ballot Units. To accommodate so many, the poll panel had to tweak the layout of the voting booth. “We had to arrange the Ballot Units and VVPAT machine in such a way that a voter would be able to cast her vote and simultaneously verify with the VVPAT unit,” said an EC official.
After testing a few options, an L-shaped arrangement was finalised in which six BUs were placed on either arm branching out from where the VVPAT unit was placed. “This arrangement optimised aspects like economy of space, in addition to facilitating the viewing of the VVPAT slip by the voter in the minimum possible time,” the officer added.
To main secrecy of voting, the EC ordered special voting compartments that were five feet tall and suitably wide.
The L-shaped layout led to a new challenge — space. It was decided to turn the entire polling station room into a voting compartment; polling personnel, who are normally present inside the room, were now stationed just outside the door.
Also, the large number of candidates meant as many symbols. “Entering a room with so many Ballot Units displaying 186 symbols would have been overwhelming. So outside every polling station room, a large hoarding depicting symbols against each candidate was placed so that voters could familiarise themselves with the layout,” the officer said.
Given the large number of machines, the EC stationed six polling officers — rather than the usual five — at each of the 1,788 polling stations. A total of 10,800 polling personnel, 354 sectoral officers and 354 route officers were put on election duty on polling day. The polling personnel had been given special training in handling M3 EVMs.
“The duration of polling for Nizamabad was the same as for other seats — 10 hours. However, as the number of candidates was large, we anticipated the mock poll to take more time than usual. So, the mock polling exercise was scheduled from 5 am to 8 am on polling day and polling time was scheduled from 8 am to 6 pm, as opposed to the normal poll time of 7 am to 5 pm,” said the EC official.