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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
 N Chandrababu Naidu and Ors. v. Union of India and Anr WP(C). 273/2019 decided on April 8, 2019.
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.