The age-old debate about the pros and cons of technology in voting procedures is still a pertinent issue, especially after the massive COVID-19 pandemic. Various countries across the world have upcoming elections and are deliberating on the ways via which votes can be cast by the voters. This also includes figuring out voting procedures for the UN Security Council elections scheduled in June 2020. The UN General Assembly is yet to decide how to go about the secret ballot system since member states cannot vote remotely via mail or any other electronic method. Maintaining physical distancing and avoiding large gatherings being the new normal, accommodating the oldest method of using Ballot paper for voting is going to be a tough task.
On the other hand, with an increase in scams and allegations from various parties during elections, the electronic voting system has its share of drawbacks. The reason being, EVM machines can be prone to tampering and are more vulnerable to get hacked. Digital manipulation always becomes a concern with the mass, voters, opposition party, and near about everyone who watches the news of the election process closely. India started the electronic voting system quite earlier, whereas states like the US continue to use ballot paper for their election process.
This article tries to discuss the history, usage, and implications of the ballot paper voting system and what could be the most effective method for the election process for the world’s largest democracy- India, especially in the current situation of the pandemic.
What is the Ballot paper voting system?
A ballot paper is like a card where a person marks their choice against the candidate’s name they want to vote for. The paper has the name of the elections they are voting for, the names of the candidates along with the party logos/signs they are associated with, and a box on the right-hand side for marking the vote. The ballot paper voting system came in the late 1800s in the US Presidential Elections. Over the years, voting in private has evolved and so has the technology to cast the vote.
When questions regarding the US elections come on board, the most prevalent question stands that why it is so that a powerful country like the US still uses the ballot paper voting system. A report from TIME says that officials have confirmed, US voters feel safe to use ballot paper. The primary reason is security and voter preference. The US Election Commission Chairman confirms that the Americans are more comfortable using the ballot paper system, unlike the Indians. Over and above the reasons stated, America also cites the reason as the cost that comes along with the e-voting system which it would not be able to afford with the current budget allocation. Since 2014 elections left the opposition (The Congress) in disbelief, several theories of EVM’s being hacked sidled in the media.
The Indian elections having a separate segment reserved to controversies, has been deliberating over switching back to ballot paper voting. Various political parties suggested a change in the system of voting before the 2019 General Elections were to happen. However, the Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora on February 2019 rejected the idea of bringing back the paper ballot voting in India. And it is needless to say that India with the largest number of voters in the world, would be a tedious task to manually tally the votes.
The electoral procedure needs to be fair to restore the faith of the political parties and the voters. It is indeed understood that it is a mammoth task to conducting elections in this country. With every election, voters have increased, phases in which polling happens has also increased.
India started its elections with the Ballot paper voting and dropped it since the 1980s while replacing it with EVMs. The electronic method of voting came as a respite to the electoral procedure immersed in muscle and money power. However, the threat of hacking, transfer of votes to other parties, flipping votes to other candidates, or simply a hacker removing all votes, are few of the major issues related to electronic voting. In an article on Scroll, written by engineer-science activist Prabir Purkayastha and technologist, Bappa Sinha, there was a discussion about the Indian EVMs, how they function, and how it is almost unfeasible for the Indian EVMs to be hacked. Nevertheless, it mentioned, the Election Commission of India must act in a very proactive manner to calm the sceptics.
Ballot papers, on the other hand, have been used since forever for fair and transparent polling, but the scenario remains questionable in the post-COVID world.
Now, given the situation of this current pandemic, the world post the relaxation of lockdowns and restrictions would be a lot different. The most important aspect of a democratic system will especially encounter a lot of amendments concerning its procedure. Ballot paper voting system would require handling the ballot papers with bare hands for almost everything.
Countries all across the world have experienced upheavals in election schedules. Therefore, conducting elections in-person has become a new task for countries. With strict rules and guidelines to prevent the virus from infecting large groups of people, countries will have to create more polling booths to avoid overcrowding in one place; employ and train election officials with the new guidelines and provide protective equipment for almost everyone involved in the election process. This would require a lot of funds to be allocated which is again a huge burden on the budget of most countries.
Despite various countries canceling elections and postponing them indefinitely, South Korea conducted its elections in a carefully planned and orderly fashion. It showed the other countries the way forward in conducting their elections in a safe and sanitized manner.
Millions of people headed to the polls in South Korea on April 15, 2020, and had the highest turnout ever, despite the pandemic. The voters waited in lines in the given taped spots to reduce human contact. They were fever screened at the polling stations by the masked election officers, given sanitizer gel and disposable plastic gloves as they cast their ballots.
The others who did not wear a mask or anyone detected with fever were separated from the crowd and the booth was sanitized thereafter to avoid any infection or contagion. The elections for those who were infected happened via mail if they had applied for it. Even after having ballot paper elections, they were successful in maintaining sanitation and physical distancing.
This wonderfully arranged election in Seoul, South Korea is a direct result of careful strategizing and adequate fund allocation in the system. That is a learning experience for most other countries.
Indian Elections during good old ballot days
There have been reported incidents of voter fraud in the Indian elections when paper ballot voting was used for polling. The polling booths used to be captured by thugs; genuine voters were shooed away or given money. The thugs marked and cast votes on the ballot papers to the candidate they preferred. This is known as Ballot stuffing.
The first complaint regarding EVM tampering came in 2009 when BJP lost in the General Elections. Previously, the BJP supporters raised a hue and cry about the hacking of EVMs and rigging of votes, when Congress was in power. Now, since 2014, the Congress claims issues with the EVM, while BJP has made peace with it. In any case, the endless debate over EVMs is consistent in this country.
Here are some drawbacks that the ballot paper has in a country with 90 crore voters.
- Given the kind of infrastructure India as the largest democracy needs during elections, ballot papers are extremely unsustainable, slow, and expensive procedures. More than anything else, the risk of environmental damage is enormously high.
- Usage of papers on such a mass scale invariably increases the carbon footprints.
- The votes so cast is to be calculated manually, which increases the risk of error and miscalculation. Counting of votes thereby would be a tiresome process for a country where there are around 90 crore voters.
- It would take a lot of time to count the votes, a slow and time taking process to come up with the results.
- Vote manipulation by a change in the ink, not considering votes from a certain group of people, and thugs capturing the booths, making it unsafe for both voters and election officers are also other possibilities.
- With the advent of corona virus, ballot paper voting in India would mean creating a situation for the virus to spread and wreak havoc.
The advent of EVMs post the ballot controversy was sure an efficient and effortless way of conducting elections in this country. However, with EVM hacking issues, the security of the machines being used, and the inability to audit the polling, this current system seems to have increasingly jeopardized the democratic independent election system. There have been instances of faulty EVMs and VVPATs becoming meaningless if paper trails are never counted.
The amount of money that has been spent and is continued to be allocated due to the current health crisis, has created a whole new method for elections with new guidelines and would be a great task to achieve. The concern about free and fair elections must have an added criterion of a “safe and hygienic” election from now on.
To use or not to use ballot paper?
Various first world nations have banned the usage of EVMs and continue using the ballot paper for polling. The countries which have rejected this method of voting include the US, Germany, England, Netherlands, and France. Later, the Republic of Ireland and Italy also rejected the same. This was so done to protect the voting rights of the people, restoring faith and upholding the facets of democracy through free and fair elections.
As the world stares at the pandemic and figures out ways to combat funds shortage, it has become the central theme of all countries to conduct elections in a more accessible and inclusive manner. All this, keeping in mind the world after the pandemic.
While every system whether ballot paper or electronic voting will have its shortcomings, no method should defy the main purpose of conducting elections. The elections are to be conducted fairly and transparently. Restoring the faith of the voters in the election process needs to be addressed properly. Despite any method being used by the country, the integrity of the system must be upheld. It is a legitimate concern as to what would suit India the best. It is a matter of debate as to should India move back to the ballot paper voting system or should we continue relying on the EVMs to cast our valuable votes. To combat the virus, it is important for the Election Commission of India to come up with ways to conduct the election with the least human contact.
The world is now looking ahead to the November Presidential Elections in America in 2020. It is a pertinent question as to will they be able to manage the mammoth elections as South Korea did. Given the current times, we don’t know yet. This pandemic will only make the countries come up with innovative and effective methods for fair, safe, and hygienic elections.