Votes Polled is Key Data: Why is Election Commission Hiding It?
Opacity in votes polled data raises questions on Election Commission’s fairness.
Why is it important to share voter turnout data with the public? Why has the Election Commission of India (EC) stopped sharing exact data about the numbers of votes polled ever since the 2019 Lok Sabha elections? Why is accessing votes polled data from EC even under Right To Information (RTI), getting tougher?
The Quint filed RTI applications with the EC seeking data about the numbers of EVM votes polled, and related documents for the November 2020 Bihar Assembly Elections. After a long wait of 4 months, we got RTI replies from only 26 constituencies out of a total of 243 Bihar Assembly constituencies.
Of the 26 RTI replies, 12 Central Public Information Officers (CPIO) did not share votes polled data. When we cross-checked the votes polled data supplied by the other 14 constituencies, the number matched exactly with the votes counted data.
None of the CPIOs of 26 constituencies shared the crucial Form 17C that contains the exact numbers of votes polled, and is submitted at every booth on voting day.
What is Form 17C? And why is it an important election document?
Here is what EC guidelines say - ‘The presiding officer, shall at the close of the poll, prepare an account of votes recorded in the Form 17C, and enclose it in a separate cover with the words ‘Account of Votes Recorded’ superscribed thereon. The presiding officer shall furnish it to every polling agent, present at the close of the poll.’
The Form 17C is the only document which may give us the true number of the votes polled in a booth on voting day. It is prepared by the election officer at the end of the day.
But The Quint did not receive even a single Form 17C from any of Bihar's 243 constituencies, although we did clearly ask the EC for documents related to votes polled data.
Since no Form 17C has been shared with us, we cannot double-check the votes polled data provided to us by the CPIOs. The information may well have been picked up from data about votes counted, which is available on EC’s website.
Here is why we doubt the information provided via RTI by CPIOs about votes polled:
When asked about the number of votes polled, the CPIO of Sitamarhi constituency said,
“It can be viewed from Form 20 available on portal ceobihar.nic.in”
The CPIO of Laukaha constituency simply shared the "Form 20" containing votes counted numbers in its RTI reply.
So, what is Form 20?
Form 20 is prepared by the Returning Officer of the constituency after the counting is over. This Form gives the break-up of the number of valid EVM and ballot votes received by each candidate. It also specifies invalid ballot votes and NOTA votes.
Since The Quint's RTI question specifically asked for the 'votes polled' data, why did the CPIO ask us to view 'Form 20' which only mentions the votes counted? Why not share Form 17C, which has the information that we seek?
One may ask, why is it a big deal if the exact numbers of votes polled are not made public?
The reason is simple. EC must share the exact number for voter turnout so that political parties can raise concerns if there is any discrepancy between the data about votes polled and votes counted.
In a recent incident, 181 votes were cast at a polling station that had only 90 registered voters in Assam’s Dima Hasao district. The forgery was found out after the scrutiny of the Presiding Officer’s diary and documents. Later EC declared a re-poll in this constituency.
Hence, real-time data on votes polled and access to such data, is a key aspect of genuine transparency during elections.
Moreover, recording and noting down votes polled numbers at the close of poll is not an herculean task. Every Control Unit of an EVM has two buttons, one "Result" button and another "Total" button.
As mentioned on the EC's website,
"On pressing the 'Total' button, the total number of votes polled" will be displayed without indicating the candidate-wise result. While the 'Result' button is pressed on the counting day to get a candidate-wise vote share.
When it is just a matter of pressing one button to get the final number of votes polled in an EVM, then there is no reason why it cannot be made public at the end of the polling day or within a couple of days, or in reply to an RTI query.
In an article published on 31 May 2019, The Quint exposed a mismatch in the numbers of votes polled and votes counted in over 370 constituencies in 2019 Lok Sabha Elections. Based on this article, the Association Democratic for Reform (ADR) filed a petition in the Supreme Court which is still pending.
ADR in its petition raised serious concerns saying,
“The infirmities in the existing system of conducting elections, by declaring election results even before authenticated election data is released by the Election Commission, are serious and cannot be disregarded. Such a protocol is likely to create suspicion, confusion, conflict and discredit the electoral process.”ADR Petition
Interestingly, after The Quint's exposé, the EC stopped releasing data about the exact number of votes polled in constituencies. In subsequent Assembly elections EC has released figures of voter turnout only in percentage terms.
ADR has objected strongly before the SC to this change of methodology by the EC, saying that this could be an attempt to cover up discrepancies.
It further added,
“...the methodology of putting out actual numbers of votes polled was changed arbitrarily and without any explanation... The discontinuation of publication of actual number of votes polled at any booth/constituency and replacing it with a percentage figure abruptly... was seemingly done to cover up the large number of unexplained discrepancies being recorded in a majority of the constituencies.”ADR
Exact Votes Data Vs Percentage
After the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Assembly elections took place in Maharashtra, Haryana, Delhi and Bihar. In all these elections, EC released the voter turnout data only in percentage terms. Data on sctual votes polled on each voting day was no longer shared.
During the Delhi Assembly elections in February 2020, Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal raised questions over the almost 20 hour delay in the announcement of final voter turnout percentage.
In the ongoing Assembly elections in the five states of Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, once again EC is releasing only collective voter turnout percentage for each State at the end of each phase. Constituency-wise voter turnout data percentage can be seen on their 'Turnout App'.
But there is a catch. This percentage data is approximate and not final.
And yet, surely at every booth after polling Form 17C is being duly filled with the actual numbers of votes polled. Why is this crucial data, that is available at the press of a button, not being compiled and shared with the public?
The Election Commission of India is a constitutional body created to ensure free, fair and transparent elections. And changing the methodology of sharing votes polled data from exact numbers to percentages, without sharing the rationale behind it has raised doubts about the fairness and impartiality of the institution.
This is also at a time when there is a lot of public mistrust about EVMs. To top it all, even the RTI route, designed for transparency in governance, seems to have failed in accessing such crucial data. Why is EC practising partial transparency?
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