How are EVM votes counted in Indian elections?
Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) have fundamentally changed the process of vote counting in India. Unlike ballots, EVMs do not require a counting supervisor or assistant to count all ballots individually. Rather, the machines themselves provide a summarized number of votes for them. As results come in for the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh state assemblies, we take a look at how votes are counted on EVMs.
When does the count start and how long does it take?
As per the Election Commission (EC) guidelines, postal ballots begin the counting process. EVMs must be brought in for counting at least half an hour after the counting of postal ballots has already begun. Like postal ballots, EVMs are counted in rounds, with the Returning Officer (RO) updating the results after each round of counting. When news channels and apps show “trends” and “leads”, the number they refer 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 must be counted before the penultimate round of EVM counting. This means that the last two rounds of EVMs can only be counted after all the postal ballots in the constituency have already been counted. In this way, the time it actually takes to count votes on EVMs depends on how fast/slow the process of counting postal ballots (which have to be counted individually by hand) has been.
What happens to EVMs after you cast your vote?
After the voting is completed, the fair presidents are supposed to immediately seal the machines and take them to a designated storage area, under the observation of the candidate’s agents and with appropriate security measures.
Generally, the storage area, also known as the strong room, is in the same premises as the one where the count is set to be scheduled. Storage of EVMs is done in a methodical manner to easily identify and locate a particular machine if needed. After all the EVMs from all the polling stations are brought to the strong room, the room is locked and put under high security.
At each step of this process, there is also a lot of paper marking that makes a record of every single action of the returning officers, as well as the entire journey to the EVM.
Safe transport of EVMs to counting halls
Safety is of the utmost importance during storage as well as on the day of the count. There must be a smooth flow of EVMs between the respective strong rooms and counting halls. Security forces provide multi-layered security, with a barricaded innermost barricade along the route 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 (usually according to serial numbers) to determine the order in which the counting is done.
The entire transport process is recorded by EC officials on a video camera. However, no one else is allowed near EVMs with electronics. Counting rooms and strong rooms block all mobile phones or computer devices to prevent hacking of EVMs (or the allegation that they have been hacked). There is a separate room for the media with one EC official under the RO who is responsible for liaising with the media about all developments in the counting centres.
Features of EVM
EVMs consist of three parts: Voting Unit(s) (BU), Control Unit (CU) and Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT). BUs are what voters actually vote for: they have options for up to 16 candidates, and multiple BUs can be linked to a CU in case there are more than 16 candidates competing in polls. When it comes to counting, the CU is the most important – it is the part of the EVM where votes are actually recorded, and it is the CU that is brought to the counting hall for counting.
The VVPAT creates a paper trail for each vote counted and prints a small slip of paper corresponding to each vote polled. VVPATs are used to verify results at CU. However, results at CU are considered valid even without VVPAT verification being done at the request of one or more candidates or randomly by observers to ensure the legitimacy of the process.
Counting of votes on EVMs
CUs are methodically distributed to different tables in the counting halls and taken out of the carrier bags after the seal has been checked. After that, the CU undergoes a few more rounds of checks to ensure that it is indeed the correct CU from the correct polling station and has not been tampered with. If tampering or incorrect serial numbers are suspected, these CUs are set 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. CU has a “result” button that must be pressed. When you press, it displays the result on a screen panel. Crucially, to ensure that all candidates and their counting agents are happy, the display panel is clearly shown to everyone present, including EC observers to note the results independently. Since the counters 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 the counting is completed, EVMs are again sent to storage and kept so that they can be accessed again in the event of a recount.
Any candidate, their polling agent or their counting agents may apply in writing to the RO to count the printed VVPAT paper ballots in any or all polling stations. If such an application is made, the RO must give a voice order as to whether the VVPAT slips of paper should be counted. If the RO decides to allow the counting of VVPAT slips from any or all polling stations, such decision by the RO must be recorded in writing along with the reasons therefor.
Some reasons that need to be considered are,
*Whether the total number of votes polled in that polling station is greater or less than the margin of votes between the winning candidate and the applicant candidate.
*If the EVM had a problem and was replaced at that polling station during the voting.
*Whether there was any complaint that VVPAT was not printed or complaint by a voter under rule 49MA in that polling station during the polling.
There is also mandatory random VVPAT verification done. In the case of general and by-elections to state legislatures, verification of VVPAT paper ballots is carried out at a randomly selected polling station in each assembly constituency. In the case of general and by-elections to the House of the People, verification of VVPAT paper ballots is carried out for a randomly selected polling station in each assembly segment of the concerned parliamentary constituency or as directed by the Commission.
Completion of counting and registration of results
As the votes secured by each candidate and NOTA are displayed on the display panels of the control unit, the counting officer should record the number of such votes separately for each candidate. He should also note whether the total number of votes counted tallies with the total number of votes cast (as previously recorded).
After ensuring that there are no discrepancies and that all counting agents are satisfied, the special form is signed by all parties and the results are forwarded to the RO.
With the RO, there is one officer responsible for tabulating all results and displaying cumulative tallied vote totals coming in from all tabulations.
The role of observers
Together with party-employed counting agents, all observers will keep a close eye on the process of counting votes and collating results. For this purpose, neither the observer nor the ARO/RO or any other election official should leave the counting hall before the counting is completed and the result declared. Strict discipline should be maintained inside the counting rooms, and swift action should be taken against anyone who does not follow the rules.
Observers have the authority to stop counting in certain circumstances where they feel there has been gross negligence or misconduct by counting officials with regard to following EU rules and guidelines. They can also stop counting if they feel the voting process itself was heavily compromised.
Announcement of results
After the counting has been completed in all respects, the returning officer must proceed to make the formal declaration of the result of the election.