General Elections 2019

Secret tales of polling and counting booths: How our democracy works

Spending a day in a polling booth and another 24 hours in a counting centre served as eye-openers on the way Indian democracy works and the little dark patches behind a well-knit system

By Sambit Pal
Last Updated: Tuesday 28 May 2019
Secret tales of polling and counting booths: How our democracy works
Image: Getty Images Image: Getty Images

A lady in her early 50s comes to cast her vote at a polling station situated in a not-so-remote village in eastern India, but she is too shy to press the button of the electronic voting machine (EVM). While she stands at the polling compartment, doing nothing, the polling officials get impatient. Asked to cast her vote, but she only stares at the EVM.

After half a minute, she calls a polling agent she knows by name. She asks him to come inside the polling compartment and cast the vote on her behalf. The polling agent tries to tell her where to press the button from his chair. But the lady insists. She is desperately calling him now. The impatient polling officers allow the agent to go there and help the lady. None of the other polling agents there raise any objection. The only assistant sub-inspector guarding the booth is half asleep.

With her gestures and whispers, it is not clear if the lady tells the polling agent which symbol she prefers to cast her vote on or the polling agent, a man in his early 30s, does the job himself. Ranjana Das leaves the polling booth with a smile and says, “Actually I have forgotten how to vote.” The polling officers are relieved. The next voter gets a chance to enter the EVM compartment and the poll process goes on.

If you are thinking this is an isolated incident, you are wrong. In that particular booth, about 60 per cent of voters needed help to cast their vote. Either the scot-free polling agents helped or the polling officials had to intervene breaching the privacy of the secret ballot system. The ignorance of the voters is astonishing.

We have heard or seen a polling booth only when there is violence or a VIP is going to cast his vote. We have heard how the polling agents are driven out by their counterparts or local leaders of the opposing (mainly ruling) political party.

Most of us do not know what happens in otherwise peaceful polling stations, located away from the urban belt, out of the media and administrative glares. They show how our claims of people’s mandate through secret ballot in a happy working democracy are all but a real representation of people’s choice.

It was surprising to see a man sitting close to the polling compartment and often going near the EVMs. He was either giving a demo on how to press the button of the voter’s choice or pressing the buttons himself after asking for the respective voters’ preference. Most of the voters only knew the party symbol and had no clue about the candidate. Some did not have any clue let alone the party symbol.

Later it was revealed that the man acting like an angel to voters was the driver of the polling crew and he was trained by the polling officers the night before the polling day on how to help voters understand the functioning of the EVM.

“You cannot complete the polling process unless you make such arrangements and allow polling agents to help voters. It will take days to finish polling or there will be discrepancies in the number of voters signed in the poll register and the votes cast,” says a polling officer, on condition of anonymity, having experience of conducting polls in past three elections.

His version is corroborated by a few other polling officials I have spoken to. Their aim is to finish the formalities of polling on time, filling up the nth number of forms and sign, submit the materials they collected from the dispatch centre and get the relieving order from the Returning Officer. Those who are deployed in the highly-sensitive areas have other pressures too. So the polling officers pretend there is no problem unless any polling agent objects to any procedure.

In fact, it is impossible to sit idle and strictly follow the given instructions when some voters claim they are pressing the button but it is not working and the vote is not being recorded. The polling official or the polling agent then sees that the voter is pressing the symbol of the political party instead of the blue button beside the name and the symbol.

“What can you do? We have shown them where to press the button during the campaign, but they are illiterate and cannot remember,” rues Prafulla Kumar Sahoo, polling agent of a national political party.

This is not just the ignorance about the machine. A large number of voters wait for instructions from the head of their village, community or family or local political leaders. They have no personal choice.

Ganesh Khutia, a 91-year-old farmer, can walk steadily. His sons live in a city far away from the village. He walks into the polling booth and asks the polling agent inside the booth whom to vote. To my surprise, the polling agent tells him loudly which button to press and when mere verbal instruction doesn’t work, he rushes to the polling counter from his seat and casts Ganesh’s vote.

As long as no other polling agent or voter objects to this arrangement of “helping the voters”, the process can go on uninterruptedly for the sake of a “smooth functioning democracy”.

Despite the Election Commission of India and political parties teaching villagers how to use EVMs, it doesn’t seem enough. They get confused looking at the machine and being under pressure to press a button within a short period inside the polling booth.

To me, polling or counting agents are the most important part of free and fair election process. If agents raise any valid objection to the procedure, which is a right conferred on them, the poll officials are bound to listen. Unfortunately, most of them are not properly trained and they are impatient to be easily bullied by the authority.

During mock polls, an agent kept on pressing the button with his party symbol and won’t listen to the polling officer’s request to test other buttons. He was apprehensive that pressing other buttons would mean voting for those other candidates. He had no clue that the mock poll results were to be deleted before the actual polling began. 

Most of them do not know about the paperwork involved in the polling duty. So it is easy to avoid their objections if any. Especially during counting, patience is key. It is important to hold the ground till the end. Most of the agents leave the counting tables after a few rounds or if they see their candidate is trailing.

Out of the five polling agents I saw, only one survived the game of patience till the last round. Some of them were ready to sign the documents before the procedure was over leaving plenty of ground for counting officers to finish the process without any hurdles.

“I have been attending counting process since 1987. So I know what it takes to be here without almost no communication with the outside world,” says Chandra Kanta Sahoo, counting agent of a national political party. However, after sitting through the counting process and looking at balloting units producing results in minutes, he was suspicious of the functioning of the EVMs like his leaders. “I would still prefer paper ballots. That leaves no chance of ambiguity,” he says.

While there is a need to educate voters and making them aware of not only the EVMs but also the democratic process, the political parties would perhaps prefer the voters to remain at the semi-literate state to work to their benefits. It is not possible for the Election Commission or its appointed officials to perform this duty without the help of grassroot political activists. Either we implement this or be happy pretending a free and fair election with an exact reflection of people’s choice in a vibrating democracy.

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