Nana Patole’s move to re-introduce ballot box system in Maharashtra

Ballot Box - Nana Patole

A fresh row erupted ahead of the elections of five states, including West Bengal and Tamil Nadu after the state Assembly speaker, Nana Patole said that the Maharashtra government is considering reintroducing ballot papers as a mode of conducting elections, and may introduce a bill during the state assembly’s Budget Session, which is likely to start from March.

Now the question is that can a state introduce such a system when the elections of Lok Sabha and the state legislative assembly are not state subject. The state Assembly Speaker Nana Patole said he has directed the Uddhav Thackeray government to draft a bill for the reintroduction of ballot papers that will exist along with EVMs. If the draft is ready, the bill can be introduced in the coming budget session, he asserted.

The bill if introduced will only be applicable for state legislature elections and local self-government elections. If the Thackeray government does go ahead with the politically significant move, it will make Maharashtra the first state to bring in such legislation for elections to be held on ballot papers and EVMs together.

All three constituents of the Maha-Vikas-Aghadi government – Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress – are said to be on the same page regarding the reintroduction of ballot papers.
The Electronic Voting Machines, or EVMs, have been in the news over the last few years as politicians from opposition parties and activists have raised questions about whether they are at risk of being tampered with. Opposition parties, especially the Congress, have often alleged that EVMs give votes in favour of the BJP and have blamed the machines for their election defeats. The Election Commission, however, has repeatedly refuted the allegations and maintains that EVMs cannot be tampered with .

Surprisingly, the Congress-led UPA had conducted the general elections in 2009 and 2014 with the help of EVMs and also conducted Assembly elections across the country by EVMs.

The Election Commission of India states that their machines, system checks, safeguard procedures and election protocols are “fully tamper-proof.” India used paper ballots till the 1990s.

The sheer scale of the Indian elections with more than half a billion people eligible to vote, combined with election-related criminal activity, led Indian election authority and high courts to transition to electronic voting. According to Arvind Verma – a professor of Criminal Justice with a focus on South Asia, Indian elections have been marked by criminal fraud and ballot tampering since the 1950s. The first major elections with large scale organized booth capturing were observed in 1957. The journalist Prem Shankar Jha, states Milan Vaishnav, documented the booth capturing activity by Congress party leaders, and the opposition parties soon resorted to the same fraudulent activity in the 1960s. A booth-capture was the phenomenon where party loyalists, criminal gangs and musclemen entered the booth with force in villages and remote areas, and stuffed the ballot boxes with pre-filled fake paper ballots.

This problem grew between the 1950s and 1980s and became a serious and large scale problem in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, later spreading to Andhra Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal accompanied with Election Day violence. Another logistical problem was the printing of paper ballots, transporting and safely storing them, and physically counting hundreds of millions of votes.

The Election Commission of India, led by T.N. Seshan, sought a solution by developing Electronic voting machines in the 1990s. These devices were designed to prevent fraud by limiting how fast new votes can be entered into the electronic machine. By limiting the rate of vote entered every minute to five, the Commission aimed to increase the time required to cast fake ballots, therefore, allow the security forces to intervene in cooperation with the volunteers of the competing political parties and the media.

In view of such situation, how can a state plan to bring such a bill to change the system that comes to federal government and not a state subject. There is a need for a comment on the issue from jurists as well as the election commission.

** M Charulata