How votes are counted in Indian elections?

The counting of votes for General Election 2019, which concluded on Sunday, will begin tomorrow, i.e., 23rd May at 8 AM.  The election was conducted in 7 phases for 543 constituencies of Lok Sabha.  The Election Commission of India (ECI) uses Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) to conduct elections. Since 2000, ECI has conducted 113 assembly elections and three general elections using EVMs.[1]  Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system was added to EVMs in 2013 to increase transparency and improve voter confidence in the system.  The VVPAT system generates a printed paper slip bearing the name and election symbol of the candidate.  On April 8, 2019, Supreme Court instructed the ECI that printed VVPAT slips from randomly selected five polling stations in each assembly segment of a parliamentary constituency should be matched with EVMs.[2]  In this blog, we explain the election counting process in India.

Who is responsible for counting the votes?

The Returning Officer (RO) is responsible for conducting elections in a constituency, which also includes counting of votes.[3] The RO is an officer of the government or a local authority nominated by the ECI for each constituency in consultation with the state government.[4]

Where does the counting take place?

The RO decides the place where the votes will be counted for the parliamentary constituency.  The date and time of counting is fixed by the ECI.  Ideally counting of votes for a constituency should be done at one place, preferably at the Headquarter of the RO in that constituency.  It should be performed under the direct supervision of the RO.  However, each Parliamentary Constituency has multiple assembly segments.  In this situation, counting can take place at different locations for various assembly segments under the direct supervision of an Assistant Returning Officer (ARO).

Layout of the Counting Hall

Page 431, Handbook for Returning Officer Document 23 Edition 1, Election Commission of India

Counting of votes for each assembly segment of a parliamentary constituency is performed in a single hall.  In each round of counting, votes from 14 EVMs are counted.  In case of simultaneous parliamentary and assembly elections, such as Odisha, the first seven tables are used for counting votes for assembly elections, and the rest for parliamentary elections.

In constituencies with a large number of candidates, it may not be possible to count votes for all candidates in a single hall without overcrowding it.  In such a situation, the number of counting halls or tables can be increased with the prior permission of the ECI.  A hall can also be used for counting votes of another assembly segment after the results of the first segment are declared.  However, counting may be done for only one assembly segment in a hall at any point of time.

What is the counting process?

Counting is performed by counting supervisors appointed by the RO.  Counting staff is appointed through a three stage randomisation process to ensure impartiality.  Candidates along with their counting agents and election agents are also present in the counting hall.

Counting of votes begins with Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballots (ETPB) and Postal Ballots (PB). These votes are counted under the direct supervision of the RO. Counting of EVMs can start 30 minutes after the commencement of PB counting, even if all PBs have not been counted.  At the end of each round of counting, the results from 14 EVMs are declared.

What is the process for counting VVPAT slips?

The ECI prescribes the process for randomly selecting one EVM for each assembly segment of a parliamentary constituency for VVPAT matching.  The verification of VVPAT paper slips is conducted inside a secured VVPAT Counting Booth in the counting hall with access to authorised personnel only.  Any counting table in the hall can be converted into VVPAT Counting Booth after completing EVM vote counting.  Parliamentary constituencies generally have between five and ten assembly segments.

The Supreme Court has decided that VVPAT slips of five randomly selected polling stations for each assembly segment shall be matched with the result shown in the respective EVMs.  This implies that VVPAT paper slips need to be matched for about 25-50 machines for each parliamentary constituency.  This process requires personal supervision of RO/ARO.  The ECI has decided that the counting of five VVPATs will be done sequentially.[5]  The RO can declare the final result for the constituency after the VVPAT matching process has been completed.

What happens if there is a discrepancy between the VVPAT count and the EVM results?

In such a case, the printed paper slips count is taken as final. The ECI has not clarified whether there would be any further action (such as counting of all VVPATs in a constituency or assembly segment) if there is a discrepancy in the counts of one of the five VVPATs.

[1] https://www.eci.gov.in/files/file/8756-status-paper-on-evm-edition-3/.

[2] N Chandrababu Naidu and Ors. v. Union of India and Anr WP(C). 273/2019 decided on April 8, 2019.

[3] https://www.eci.gov.in/files/file/9400-hand-book-for-returning-officer-february-2019/.

[4] https://www.eci.gov.in/faqs/elections/election-machinery/faqs-election-machinery-r1/.

[5] https://www.eci.gov.in/files/file/10197-mandatory-verification-of-vvpat-paper-slips-regarding/.

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