Logistics Behind The World’s Largest Election
Starting on April 11, millions of Indians will vote in the 2019 General Elections to elect the new government, and in effect, the next Prime Minister. With a population of 1.3 billion people and a voting age of 18, an astonishing 900 million Indians are eligible to vote. This is nearly double the entire population of the 28-country European Union, and triple that of the United States. Often, the electorate of a single state in India is as large as that of a country. Welcome to the world’s largest election.
To break it down, 543 seats in the lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, are up for grabs. These 543 seats are divided as constituencies among 29 states and 7 union territories in proportion to their population. Any political party or coalition needs to win a minimum of 272 seats to form the ruling government for the next five years. This government also gets to appoint the Prime Minister of India.
It is the Election Commission of India (ECI), a 300-member team led by the Chief Election Commissioner, that is entrusted with the task of conducting these elections. The ECI carries out every function necessary to run the elections — everything between setting the dates and vetting candidates, to enrolling and educating voters, and finally, to counting votes and declaring poll results. They also set and enforce a comprehensive set of guidelines for the candidates to follow. The ECI deploys over 11 million civilian and security personnel — greater than the population of 42 of the 50 states in the US— to ensure the elections run fairly and smoothly.
The ECI has a simple vision: To conduct elections completely free of crime and abuse of money based on a perfect electoral roll with full voter participation
No Voter Left Behind
A major way the ECI works towards fulfilling their vision is by ensuring that no voter has to travel more than 2 km to reach a polling station. In order to do this, there are presently over one million polling stations across India. In comparison, the 2016 US Presidential Elections had about 117,000 physical polling locations — one-tenth the number, although postal ballot is an option there. Some of these stations are located in the remotest parts of the country including the deserts in Rajasthan, mountains in the Himalayas, forests in Gujarat and small islands in the Indian Ocean. To reach these stations, polling personnel may have to travel in helicopters, boats, rope cars, camels, elephants, and sometimes even trek for two to three days. In the past, officials have trekked 45 km through the snow to reach 35 voters in the mountains and traversed 30 km through the lion-infested Gir forest to reach a single voter.
The ECI also takes various measures to enable voters with disabilities to participate actively. The election material is made accessible, EVMs are braille compliant, polling stations are disabled-friendly and companions are allowed to accompany them. There are polling stations exclusively for women in places where they feel unsafe going out to vote in the same booth as men. Female officers are also present to identify veil-wearing Muslim women who cannot show their face to male officers. For the army personnel and other service workers who are on duty, ECI also facilitates postal ballot and proxy options.
The Systematic Voter Education and Electoral Participation program, working on the premise of No Voter to be Left Behind, was established to carry out various voter education and awareness initiatives. This includes educating voters on EVMs, providing a helpline number for any election-related query, establishing electoral literacy clubs, identifying and improving low voter-turnout regions, and conducting media campaigns. The ECI also has the daunting task of preparing election material in multiple languages given that India speaks 23 major languages and hundreds of other languages.
Free, Fair and Bloodless
This year the elections will be conducted in seven phases from April 11 to May 19, with each phase lasting a day. The dates are decided by keeping in mind festivals, harvest seasons, exam schedules and weather patterns. The election season is in itself a carnival for democracy. International media, local journalists and curious tourists make way to witness this spectacle.
Most states require only one phase to complete polling, but some with a larger population or more difficult polling conditions require more. The voting is stretched out over several weeks to facilitate the movement of officials and security personnel between polling centres. Attempts to sabotage the elections by preventing voters, especially minority groups, from reaching the polling booth or coercing them to vote for a particular candidate are often carried by extremists and muscle-men in various parts of the country. Instances of booth-capturing, where armed people invade polling stations to cast illegal votes can also occur. Thanks to the increased presence of security personnel, video surveillance, and initiatives like vulnerability mapping, these instances have greatly reduced over the years.
Any attack is immediately communicated, regardless of which corner of the country it has taken place in. Apart from the traditional means of landlines and mobile phones, satellite phones are also used in remote regions. In some cases, booths are staffed with athletes who will run to the nearest communication point to pass on important information. If needed, a backup security and polling team will be in place as soon as possible.
Terms and Conditions
Once the ECI announces the dates, the Model of Code of Conduct goes into effect. These are a set of guidelines that candidates are expected to follow to ensure free and fair polls. Despite laying out various important rules, the code does not have statutory backing. The ECI demands answers from parties and hopes that the public will hold them morally accountable for any violations. There are also other, more enforceable, guidelines for candidates to follow. Candidates must file an affidavit, which is made available to the general public, stating educational qualifications, wealth details, and criminal antecedents if any. Expenditure limits are set for candidates who are expected to keep track of these by opening a separate bank account.
The ECI has set up Flying Squads, Static Surveillance Teams and Video Surveillance Teams that monitor candidates and hold them accountable for any violation. The ECI video-graphs all critical election-related activity from the filing of nominations to the counting of votes. In addition, thousands of observers — General Observers, Expenditure Observers, Police Observers and Micro Observers — are delegated various monitoring activities. Voters can report any concerns by contacting toll-free numbers or submitting details online and through mobile apps.
Despite these measures, some candidates continue to find ways to undermine democracy by bribing, using muscle power, or appealing to caste sentiments. These are issues that the ECI has the grapple with, but it has worked vigorously towards solving them.
Technology: Boon or Bane?
Perhaps the most difficult task for the ECI this year will be monitoring social media. To combat foreign interference and spread of fake news, candidates are expected to furnish their social media accounts and report all expenses incurred while advertising on these platforms. A dedicated team certifies any campaign content before it is published in a traditional media outlet or on social media. The ECI has also established priority channels with companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter to escalate any issues or violations of guidelines. These measures might be not be sufficient to tackle the menace of social media, but it is a start.
The task of counting votes which previously took days of manual labour, now happens in a day with a click of a button, thanks to the efficiency of Electronic Voting Machines. But this is perhaps the one area where the ECI has been receiving a lot of flak. Allegations of tampering and misuse have prompted political parties to criticise these machines. To combat this, ECI has announced that every polling station will have a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) along with an EVM. Previously, only a limited number of polling stations had both these features. VVPATs are machines that print a slip with details of the candidate chosen, allowing voters to verify their vote. This also allows ECI to cross-check electronic and paper vote counts to provide more credible results.
Although EVMs are offline machines, the ECI takes all steps to prevent hacking or misuse. The two-step randomisation process to decide where a machine is sent reduces the chances of targeted attacks. Multiple mock polls are also conducted before the actual use of these machines. These steps are carried out in front of representatives of political parties to increase transparency. The transport of the machines before and after polling is continually monitored through GPS-fitted vehicles and they are stored in facilities guarded by security personnel and closed-circuit monitoring. These measures, along with the unaccepted open challenge inviting anyone to hack, ascertain the credibility of EVMs.
The ECI has also adopted various other technological means to make the election process more efficient. The electoral roll management software is one of the most advanced of its kind, similarly, the polling personnel management software automates a lot of tasks. There are mobile and web apps for voters to obtain any election-related details, for polling personnel to monitor important statistics on poll day, and for candidates to obtain permissions and lodge complaints.
The Biggest Human Management Exercise
To train millions of polling personnel, the India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management (IIDEM) was established by the ECI. The training is carried out in a cascading manner, wherein senior level trainers are divided into hundreds of batches and go through multiple training sessions and certification programs. They, in turn, conduct sessions for ten-thousands of junior staff. The officials and security personnel undergo a three-stage randomisation process: during the shortlisting of personnel for training, in the formation of groups, and finally in the allocation of polling stations. This is done in order to reduce bias and prevent candidates or locations from having any influence over personnel. IIDEM also shares its expertise and resources with other countries. Officials from over 44 Afro-Asian and Commonwealth nations have been trained so far and many more seek the institute’s advice on a regular basis.
The ECI was established as a permanent and autonomous constitutional body on 25 January 1950, one day before the formation of the nation — a symbolic reminder of its importance and power. Upon independence from the British, 85 per cent of the population was illiterate and the society was deeply rooted in a caste-based hierarchical system. Despite this, ECI daringly decided to adopt universal adult franchise and granted every citizen above the age of 21 the right to vote at a time when many countries only allowed men or property owners to vote.
“A very large majority will exercise votes for the first time: not many know what the vote is, why they should vote, and whom they should vote for; no wonder the whole adventure is rated as the biggest gamble in history “— C. R. Srinivasan, a veteran Madras editor
More than 200,000 polling stations were constructed. Two million ballot boxes were made as each candidate got his own box at every polling station. The ECI had to go door-to-door to register and encourage the 176 million eligible Indians to vote. The teams working on this had to educate a mostly illiterate population and convince women to give their own names instead of enrolling themselves as wives and daughters. Local State Elections had to be conducted alongside the larger General Elections. Bridges and roads had to be constructed to reach many parts of the nation.
“A country does not have to be judged fit for democracy, rather it has to become fit through democracy” — Noble laureate Amartya Sen
India’s first General Elections, described as the “biggest experiment in democracy in human history”, finally took place in 68 phases between 1951–52. The inexperienced ECI, against all odds and doubts of the international community, successfully conducted these elections with 45 percent voter turn-out rate and established a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Since then, the ECI has repeatedly achieved this remarkable feat. They have conducted 16 General Elections and hundreds of State Elections.
Regardless of which party is going to win, the one winner we can bet on is the Election Commission of India. And while they continue to tirelessly tackle the biggest logistical challenges to conduct the world’s largest elections, we can play our part — the most important in any democracy — by exercising our responsibility and right to vote.
Resources for further reference:
Lecture by former Chief Election Commissioner Dr S. Y. Quraishi on Conducting Elections in the World’s Largest Plural Society at University of Pennsylvania
Brooking Institution discussion with former Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath