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FEATURES - BYTES AND BULLOCK CARTS

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Observing first hand the role of IT in India's electoral process ...
Observing first hand the role of IT in India's electoral process

has convinced Karamjit Singh that Britain has much to learn

from the world's largest democracy

The bedrock of any electoral process is confidence in its procedures and accuracy. In Delhi, with an estimated population of 14 million, 12,000 central and local government staff visited every house to update the register for this year's elections.

Each person on this revised list was invited to pick up an elections identity card from one of 30 centres. Each centre issues up to 300 cards - each complete with a digital photo - every day, usually after a ten minute wait.

An estimated 60% of voters nationally now have these cards, but the Election Commission of India, established half a century ago, allows 16 alternative documents to be shown.

The registers for all eight million Delhi voters are accessible on the internet. A call centre and website handle queries about electoral status. It is planned to extend these arrangements throughout India.

I visited the parliamentary seat of Guna to see its arrangements for polling. This constituency has over one million voters with over 1,500 urban and rural polling stations.

The four staff at each polling station were trained in the use of the portable and battery operated electronic machines; each of the political parties contesting the election had agents at the booth who had seen and tried the machines; voters knew about the machines because they had seen television and newspaper advertisements; and electoral staff had visited villages and towns to explain how they worked.

Over 400 vehicles were used to collect machines and staff at six central points, with audit trails and systems to identify and link each machine with each polling station.

I was impressed by how much faith everyone had in the machines' anti-fraud and security measures.

But an average turnout in the four state and parliamentary by-elections of around 60% is a salutary reminder that IT by itself, no matter how well organised, will not provide solutions to issues such as voter interest.

In Agra, which has 2.2 million voters in nine Assembly seats, I saw counting arrangements using the electronic voting machines.

Under the previous paper system it took over four days to count the votes and there were many spoilt voting slips. With these machines the counting was completed and results declared within five hours, and this allowed for inclusion of postal votes. The procedures, which are set by the Election Commission centrally, try to involve the political parties as much as possible.

On the morning of the election, all political agents are allowed to attend the polling station 30 minutes before polling starts - to see the machines register zero; and then again to see the machines being switched off at the end of the day before being sealed.

The agents are allowed to sit to one side of the polling booth all day although they cannot see how the voters vote. On counting day the political agents can see the machines giving figures for the total votes cast in each polling station and for each candidate.

In contrast, the UK only has figures for candidates at the level of each seat, for example a council ward or parliamentary constituency. In case there are any legal challenges after the election, the machines are kept secure for six months - the time limit for any court petitions.

During these elections, 175,000 electronic machines were used for 62 million registered voters. The Election Commission had 98 reported cases of machine failure and in most instances the machine was replaced quickly at the polling station by supervisors. All the machines are manufactured within India and made available to the Election Commission at an estimated cost of about£120 each.

Despite the heated debates between different politicians and parties during the election campaigns, no-one questioned the integrity of the election process or the results.

There are lessons for the UK in terms of how India has managed to successfully use so many electronic machines for voting and counting, when our system of paper ballots here has essentially been the same since the 19th century.

In yesterday's local elections, 30 councils were trying different voting methods. The Electoral Commission will be evaluating these pilots, but we are unlikely to see any bullock carts outside polling stations.

Karamjit Singh

Karamjit Singh, Electoral Commissioner

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