Source: 
The Hindu
https://www.thehindu.com/elections/lok-sabha/concerns-over-the-election-commission-voter-turnout-data-lok-sabha-elections/article68195749.ece
Author: 
AARATRIKA BHAUMIK
Date: 
22.05.2024

Alleging irregularities, Opposition leaders want the ECI to publish ‘Form 17C data,’ which contains the absolute number of votes polled in a booth. How has the poll body responded and why has the Supreme Court’s intervention been sought?

The story so far: The Supreme Court is slated to hear on May 24 a petition filed by the NGO Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) seeking a direction to the Election Commission of India (ECI) to upload polling station-wise voter turnout data on its website within 48 hours of the conclusion of polling for each phase of the Lok Sabha elections. Additionally, the NGO has flagged a sizeable difference in the initial turnout figures released by the ECI soon after the conclusion of polling and the final voter percentages published subsequently .

Such discrepancies have evoked sharp questions from the Opposition about the authenticity of the polling data available in the public domain, and the possibility of manipulation at the counting stage. On May 20, an intervention application was also moved in the case by advocate Mehmood Pracha who contested polls from the Rampur Lok Sabha constituency as an independent candidate. He alleged that the concerned returning officer (RO) had not furnished copies of the Form 17C record of votes polled in his constituency as mandated by the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 (1961 Rules).

Echoing similar concerns, a group of civil society members and former bureaucrats have also written to the apex poll body, urging it to “immediately disclose” the authenticated record of voter turnout of every polling station — as contained in Part I of Form 17C (Account of votes recorded)— via the ECI website. “The inordinate delay in the release of voter turnout, coupled with the unusually high revision of nearly 6% [in the first two phases] sans any explanation” has raised doubts over the voter turnout figures, the letter said.

The story so far: The Supreme Court is slated to hear on May 24 a petition filed by the NGO Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) seeking a direction to the Election Commission of India (ECI) to upload polling station-wise voter turnout data on its website within 48 hours of the conclusion of polling for each phase of the Lok Sabha elections. Additionally, the NGO has flagged a sizeable difference in the initial turnout figures released by the ECI soon after the conclusion of polling and the final voter percentages published subsequently .

Such discrepancies have evoked sharp questions from the Opposition about the authenticity of the polling data available in the public domain, and the possibility of manipulation at the counting stage. On May 20, an intervention application was also moved in the case by advocate Mehmood Pracha who contested polls from the Rampur Lok Sabha constituency as an independent candidate. He alleged that the concerned returning officer (RO) had not furnished copies of the Form 17C record of votes polled in his constituency as mandated by the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 (1961 Rules).

Echoing similar concerns, a group of civil society members and former bureaucrats have also written to the apex poll body, urging it to “immediately disclose” the authenticated record of voter turnout of every polling station — as contained in Part I of Form 17C (Account of votes recorded)— via the ECI website. “The inordinate delay in the release of voter turnout, coupled with the unusually high revision of nearly 6% [in the first two phases] sans any explanation” has raised doubts over the voter turnout figures, the letter said.

Form 17C and its significance

As per the 1961 Rules, the ECI has to maintain two forms that have data on the number of electors and the votes polled — Forms 17A and 17C. While the former is used to record the details of every voter who comes into a polling booth and casts his or her vote, the latter is an account of all the votes recorded. Under Rule 49S(2), a presiding officer is mandated to furnish a copy of the entries made in Form 17C to the polling agents of the candidates at the close of polling.

Part I of Form 17C contains crucial information — the identification numbers of the EVMs used in the polling station, the total number of electors assigned to the polling station, the total number of voters as entered in the register for voters (Form 17A), the number of voters who decided not to record their votes after signing the register, the number of voters who were not allowed to vote, the total number of test votes and votes recorded per EVM. Part II of the same form contains the results of the counting carried out on the stipulated day.

The data in Form 17C is used by candidates to verify the results on counting day by matching it with the EVM count. Subsequently, an election petition can also be moved in the concerned High Court in case of any discrepancies.

Final polling data raises ‘serious doubts’

The ECI has come under scrutiny for not releasing the absolute number of votes polled in any constituency in this general election, unlike in 2019. Only voting percentages have been published, that too after significant delay — after 11 days of the first phase of polling held on April 19 and four days after the second phase of polling held on April 26.

On May 7, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge wrote to leaders of the INDIA bloc saying that the polling data released by the ECI “raises serious doubts.” He flagged that apart from the delay, the voter turnout data released by the ECI “does not mention crucial yet related figures, such as the votes polled in each Parliamentary Constituency and in the respective Assembly Constituencies.” He also alleged that the “credibility of the Election Commission” was at an all-time low.

“...On earlier occasions, the Commission has published voter turnout data within 24 hours of polling. What has changed this time? Why has the Commission failed to issue any clarification to justify the delay, despite being repeatedly questioned by political parties as well as political activists?”, Mr. Kharge asked. He also expressed concern that in his 52 years of electoral life, he had never witnessed such a high increment of voting percentages in the final published data.

The provisional polling percentages for the first phase released by the ECI at 7 pm on April 19 was about 60% and for the second phase on April 26 was 60.96%. However, the final figures released on April 30 for the first phase stood at 66.14% (an increase of more than 5.5%) and 66.71% for the second phase (an increase of more than 5.74%).

The Congress chief further questioned what was precluding the poll body from publishing the exact voter turnout data of each polling station when such information was already available with the polling agents of the candidates through Form 17C. Since no data had been released about the number of eligible voters (electors) in each parliamentary constituency, it was impossible to calculate whether the absolute number of voters had increased or decreased, Mr. Kharge said.

TMC leader Mahua Moitra, the Lok Sabha candidate for Bengal’s Krishnanagar constituency, also took to the social media platform X to highlight how she was able to compile the number of voters in her constituency within 24 hours of polling. She demanded to know why the ECI had failed to publish this exact information for the previous phases of polling.

Attention @ECISVEEP - here is data for my constituency with number of voters compiled within 24 hrs of polling. Why are you not able to give this for 4 phases? @abhishekaitc@MamataOfficialpic.twitter.com/EsineMFOFn

— Mahua Moitra (@MahuaMoitra) May 14, 2024

‘No legal obligation’

In a scathing letter to Mr. Kharge, the ECI maintained that it has no legal obligation to furnish information about the absolute number of votes polled in every polling station to the general public.

“It may be noted that Commission is not legally bound to publish any voter turnout data at the aggregate level of a constituency, a State or in a phase of election because voter turnout is recorded at polling station level in statutory Form 17 C which is prepared by the presiding officer and signed by the polling agents of candidates present. Copies of Form 17 C are shared with polling agents present immediately, as the strongest measure of transparency. So, candidates are aware and in possession of exact voter turnout data in absolute numbers even before it is known to the ECI,” the letter stipulated.

Calling the allegations by Mr. Kharge an attempt to “create confusion, misdirection and impediments in the conduct of free and fair polls”, the poll body pointed out how voters continue to vote even after 6:00 pm due to long queues at polling stations resulting in variations in the estimated data on poll day.

Notably, in an affidavit filed before the apex court, the ECI claimed that disclosure of Form 17C data could cause ‘confusion in the minds of voters’ since it would also include postal ballot counts. This could be ‘used by persons with motivated interests to cast aspersion on the whole electoral process’, it alleged.  Casting aspersions on ADR’s motive, the ECI said that the NGO was approaching the top Court with an agenda “to perpetually keep creating doubt in the mind of voters based on conspiracy theory.” It also referred to ADR’s unsuccessful challenge in the EVM-VVPAT cross-verification case

ADR’s plea before top Court

ADR has sought the Supreme Court’s intervention to direct the ECI to upload scanned legible copies of Part I of Form 17C for all polling stations within 48 hours of the close of polling. Saying that such information is ‘readily available’ with the poll body, the NGO has also sought the publication of constituency and polling station-wise figures of voter turnout in absolute numbers.

“The inordinate delay in the release of final voter turnout data, coupled with the unusually high revision (of over 5%) in the EC press note of April 30 and the absence of disaggregated constituency and polling station figures in absolute numbers, has raised concerns and public suspicion regarding the correctness of the data… These apprehensions must be addressed and put to rest,” the petition said.

While seeking ECI’s response to the plea on May 17, Chief Justice of India (CJI) D.Y. Chandrachud, heading a three-judge Bench, asked the poll body’s counsel, “Every Polling Officer submits [voting records] by the evening, after 6 or 7 p.m., by which time the polling is completed. The Returning Officer would then have the data of the entire constituency. Why don’t you upload it?”

ADR has also pointed out that many times polling agents are not available at polling booths to obtain the Form 17C data which necessitates the publication of such crucial information online.

What do experts have to say?

“The ECI always discloses absolute numbers of voter turnouts. This time they are only disclosing percentages. Usually the turnouts are out within 24 hours of the end of polling unlike this time and the increase in voter turnout in the final figures is unusually high,” Anjali Bharadwaj, Director of Common Cause earlier told The Hindu. She added that the poll body should upload a scanned copy of Form 17C as soon as it is submitted by the Presiding Officer to abate transparency concerns.

Addressing the ECI’s assertion that access to Form 17C data by polling agents negates the need for such information to be published online, Jagdeep S. Chokkar, the founder of ADR, pointed out that political parties do not contest elections in all constituencies. “Does this mean that a party which is not contesting the election in a particular constituency, is not expected to have or should not have any interest in what happens in that particular constituency? This does not stand to reason,” he wrote in The Wire.

The renowned activist also highlighted how smaller political parties cannot afford to have polling agents in all booths or constituencies due to financial constraints. In fact, The Hindu found that since one constituency has roughly 2,000-2,200 booths, a candidate needs to have approximately 6,000 polling agents in each constituency to be able to obtain a copy of Form 17C. “This shows that it is impossible for smaller parties and many independents to have polling agents in all booths,” Congress Rajya Sabha MP Shakti Singh Gohil said.

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