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PERSPECTIVE|REMOTE VOTING

21st January, 2023

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Context and Overview:

India is the World’s largest democracy and the Constitution of India provides universal adult suffrage to its citizens irrespective of race, religion, gender, economic status. There has been a significant increase in voter registration over the years. However, the stagnation of voter participation is a cause of concern. As per the available data approximately one-third of the voters do not vote. This translates to a high figure of about 30 Crore eligible voters. According to ECI the inability to vote due to internal migration is one of the prominent reasons behind low voter turnout. The Election Commission of India (ECI) showcased the remote electronic voting machine prototype for migrant voters to representatives of political parties. This Multi-Constituency Remote Electronic Voting Machine (RVM) would enable migrant voters to vote from remote polling stations. ECI has also solicited written views of recognised political parties by January 31, 2023, on various related issues including changes required in legislation, administrative procedures, and voting method / RVM / technology for domestic migrants. Meanwhile, 16 opposition parties have said they will oppose the Election Commission’s multi-constituency remote electronic voting machine (RVM) for domestic migrants terming the proposal as very sketchy with huge political anomalies and problems such as no clarity on definition and number of domestic migrants.

Remote Voting:

Remote voting refers to all those means which allow electors to vote from locations other than the polling station assigned to their district of residence, either from abroad or from within the country. It comprises both electronic voting and non-electronic voting mechanisms.

Benefits of the use of remote voting solutions:

Remote voting solutions can help facilitate the act of voting for:

  • Those voters who live in remote areas.
  • Those who live abroad.
  • Those for whom voting can be difficult given their health condition (e.g. elderly or voters with disabilities).
  • Those who cannot leave the place in which they are residing at the time of the election (e.g. residents of a hospital, prison, or retirement home).
  • Those who have to/want to travel the day of the elections (e.g. due to professional duties or leisure activities).
  • Those who cannot/do not want to leave their house the day of the election (e.g. due to family duties or plans on the day of the elections).

Drawbacks of the use of remote voting solutions:

There are also several drawbacks relating to each remote voting option. This shows that there is no ‘golden solution’ to facilitating access to the ballot and that each option has its own advantages and shortcomings.

The main risks related to all remote voting solutions include:

  • They may require an additional application or registration.
  • Observing remote voting solutions may be more complex/difficult to organize than in-person voting.
  • There may be information asymmetry between voters who vote in advance and those who vote on Election Day.
  • Remote voting solutions which take place in an uncontrolled environment may present a higher risk of fraud, coercion, family voting, impersonation, violation of ballot secrecy, or other compromises to the integrity of the vote.
  • They may have financial and administrative consequences for Member States or for particular hosting institutions (such as hospitals or prisons), depending on whether they are introduced in addition to - or instead of - existing methods.
  • There may be political disagreement over the method and extent of voting by a diaspora, particularly if this is seen to be politically advantageous to a particular party.

Online Voting Systems:

Pros

Increased Efficiency

  • One of the most significant advantages of online voting systems is incredible efficiency. With traditional paper-based voting, there are a lot of steps involved, from printing ballots to counting votes by hand. All this can be avoided with online voting.
  • With an online system, Government can send out electronic ballots to all the voters in just a few clicks. And once the voting period is over, the system will automatically tally the results, saving a lot of time and money.

Improved Accuracy

  • Another advantage of online voting systems is that they tend to be more accurate than traditional paper-based systems. On the other hand, there's always the potential for human error with paper ballots, whether it's miscounting votes or mixing up ballots.
  • But with an online voting system, the votes are tallied automatically, so there's no chance for human error and results are accurate.

Greater Turnout and Voter Engagement

  • Another advantage of online voting is that it can increase voter turnout because it's more convenient for voters to cast their ballots online than to have to go to a physical polling place.
  • In addition, online elections can also improve voter engagement. It can be easy for voters to feel disconnected from the process of traditional voting. But with online voting, they can see the results in real-time, making them feel more engaged in the process.

Cons

Fraud

  • Impersonation fraud — when someone pretends to be someone, or someone who's died or moved away, to vote in another person's name.
  • False registration — when someone uses a fake name or address to get on the voter rolls.
  • Bribery — when someone pays or promises to pay in exchange for a vote for a particular candidate.
  • Duplicate voting — when the same person votes multiple times in the same election.
  • Absentee ballot fraud, when someone requests a mail ballot on behalf of someone else and fills it out without their permission.
  • Ineligible voting, when a person who does not have the right to vote (by not being a citizen, for example) votes anyway.
  • Illegal assistance, such as forcing or intimidating voters at the polls.

There is an additional layer of concern regarding e-voting because it uses electronic systems to report votes. Such systems could potentially be hacked by outsiders to alter the count, fabricating tabulations after the voting ends. Additionally, if e-voters do not cast ballots in the contests where they're eligible (because of where they live) it may be easier to commit voter fraud since there would be insufficient oversight.

Beyond that is the risk of voter fraud through identity theft. One form of identity theft occurs when a scammer contacts registered voters, claiming to work for a local election board needing to "verify voter registration." The scammer may then ask the person to verify personal information, such as a Social Security number, which has nothing to do with voting at all.

Cybersecurity statistics show rates of identity theft have significantly increased during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Security of Online Voting Systems

One of the most significant disadvantages of online voting systems is that they're not as secure as traditional paper-based systems because there's always the potential for hackers to tamper with the results.

To improve election security, authorities should look for a system that uses encryption to protect the data. The system must get tested by independent security experts.

Lack Of Transparency

Another disadvantage of online voting is that it can lack transparency. With traditional paper-based voting, voters can see people counting the ballots. But with online voting, the process is entirely electronic, making it harder to verify the results.

It’s essential to look for an online voting system that offers transparency features. For example, some systems provide a live election results page where voters can see the results as they roll in.

Recommendations:

States may consider exploring the extent to which their voting system is fit for the needs of its voting population, and whether an extension or adaptations to their remote voting offering would make voting more accessible, especially for specific groups especially for specific groups (e.g. people living abroad, people with disabilities, people who are in hospitals/nursing homes, etc.)

At the same time, States may explore whether remote voting may present issues relating to electoral legitimacy and additional administrative burdens for the state. Therefore, they should understand the trade-offs between the benefits and drawbacks of remote voting when implementing or adapting voting options.

Recent Proposal of Remote voting for migrants in India:

The Election Commission (EC) is working on a plan to introduce remote voting machine for migrant workers.  The initiative will allow migrant voters to vote from remote location through the remote electronic voting machines or RVMs. They won't have to travel to their home districts to exercise their franchise.

Why we need RVM?

Though there is no central database available for migration within the country, the analysis of available data in the public domain points to work, marriage and education-related migration as important components of domestic migration.

"Out-migration" is predominant among the rural population in overall domestic migration and around 85% of the internal migration is within states.

How remote electronic voting machine or RVM works?

Separate polling booths for remote voting will be set up and as per Election Commission, each single remote polling booth will cover 72 constituencies. To cast the vote remotely, the voter will have to register online or offline for a remote voting facility before the polling day. This has to be done within a pre-notified time with the concerned Returning Officer of their home constituency.

Once the voter is verified and declared eligible for casting his or her vote remotly, a multi-constituency remote polling station will be set up in the area where they are currently staying. The RVMs will have the same security system and voting experience as the Electronic Voting Machine.

These RVMs will have a different electronic ballot display system with candidates and symbols instead of a fixed ballot paper sheet.

When the voter scans his/her constituency card in the presence of the Presiding Officer at the polling station, their respective constituency and candidate list will appear on the RVM display. As for counting the votes, the electronic system will also count and store the votes for each candidate in a constituency.

What's remote electronic voting machines RVMs?

The remote e-voting machine will be a standalone device which doesn’t need connectivity to operate.

The machine is developed by public sector undertaking Electronics Corporation of India and can handle up to 72 constituencies from a single remote polling booth.

ECIL and Bharat Electronics are the two PSUs manufacturing the EVMs.

The RVM is a modified version of the M3 (Mark 3) EVMs.

RVM contains the following components:

  • RCU (Remote Control Unit, which has similar controls to the existing CU. The RCU can also store the result of the total number of votes as per candidate and the constituency).
  • RBU (Remote Ballot Unit, which consists of the electronic dynamic display (BUOD) instead of a fixed ballot paper sheet in a BU, BUOD (Ballot unit overlay Display), which can dynamically display the list of candidates based on the constituency number read by the constituency card reader).
  • RVVPAT (Remote Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail, which has similar functionality to existing M3 VVPAT. In addition, it can store symbols of different AC/PCs with candidate images).
  • CCR (Constituency Card Reader, which is a barcode reader to read the constituency number of a particular voter. It is connected to the PDCU Unit).
  • PDCU (Public Display Control Unit, which acts as an interface between CCR, Public display and RBU. It enables the list of candidates of the particular constituency to be displayed on public display and the RBU simultaneously).
  • RSLU (Remote Symbol Loading unit, which is used to capture symbols of Remote AC/PCs candidates from laptops under the control of Home RO. The same symbols will then be loaded into RVVPAT under the control of Remote RO).

Concerns raised:

Opposition parties and experts have expressed caution against the Election Commission’s proposal to introduce a remote voting facility, saying the concept is unclear and implementing it would make elections unfair.

The Opposition’s main concern is that regional parties, who do not have as many resources as their larger competitors, will be unable to deploy polling agents in remote polling stations in other parts of the country. Polling agents are personnel appointed by candidates to represent them at polling stations to protect interests by ensuring the voting process is free and fair.

Similarly, the proposal to use a modified version of electronic voting machines now being used has fanned long-standing allegations about the devices being manipulated.

There are challenges of defining domestic migrants, enumerating remote voters and implementation of the Model Code of Conduct at remote polling booths in other states.

Ensuring secrecy of voting, facility of polling agents for identification of voters and process and method of remote voting and counting of votes, are among the other issues.

The Representation of the People Act, 1950 and 1951, The Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, and The Registration of Electors Rules, 1960, will need to be amended to introduce remote voting.

While the laws can only be changed by Parliament, the related rules in this case can be tweaked at the level of the Law Ministry. The number of booths to be set up and their locations also needs to be settled.

The method of remote voting, familiarity of voters with the methods and the RVM technology, counting of votes cast at remote booths and their transmission to the returning officer located in other state or states also requires deliberations.

Challenges galore:

ECI has admitted there are several problems to be tackled. According to the Commission, there are legal challenges such as defining if “remote” means outside the home constituency, district or state, as well as who can be considered a “domestic migrant”. Similarly, there are technical challenges such as unfamiliarity among voters about the remote voting process and the modified version of voting machines.

Additionally, it is unclear how many remote polling booths would be required for each election, where they should be set up and how the Commission will enforce the model code of conduct in these remote voting locations. The “model code of conduct” are rules political parties and candidates must follow during campaigning, polling and counting of votes. It also set out how the party in power must function during the election period.

Final Thought:

"Migration-based disenfranchisement", the EC said, is not an option in the age of technological advancement. To overcome the challenges associated with RVM, the Commission has rightly sought suggestions from registered political parties. Perceptions of fairness are just as crucial as actual fairness and justice in democratic processes.  Allowing millions of migrant workers to vote remotely in safety and without fuss might actually improve India’s inclusive, participatory, and vibrant democracy.

Citations:

https://sansadtv.nic.in/episode/perspective-remote-voting-17-january-2023

https://commission.europa.eu/system/files/2019-11/remote_voting_main_findings.pdf

https://electionbuddy.com/blog/2022/04/20/the-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-online-voting-systems/