Vijay Mukhi: Why can’t we use tech to increasing voting percentages?

03 Oct,2013

By Vijay Mukhi


This is the time of the year where TV channel after TV channel, newspaper after newspaper, celebrity after celebrity would ask you to go out there and vote. And guess as it happens all the time, a large population of Indians simply does not vote. And who is to blame for this, not the people who do not vote, but all of us for not using technology to make it easier for us to vote.


Why can I not vote in the 2014 general elections either sitting on my computer at home or in the office and vote or voting from anywhere in the world using my mobile, not necessarily my smartphone. We allow Indians to use the phone for online banking, to buy stuff, but would not allow an Indian to use his or her phone for casting a vote. But wait, I am as always running too fast, let me rewind a little.


Most of you would not know of a Mr Chand Goel, IAS who was Additional Chief Secretary, State Election Commission (SEC) , till he retired some months ago. A year before the last BMC elections took place, he created a committee under the SEC to look into the feasibility  of allowing us to vote for the BMC elections using a computer or a mobile phone. I was a member of this committee. We met a zillion times and were also about to award a pilot project when things went awry. What I am placing before you is my journey in the use of technology in the political process. For the uninitiated, the SEC is a state body that conducts all elections other than the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections which are conducted by the Centre.


Let’s start at the end and not the beginning. We all complain about people not voting, but not asking ourselves why do we make it so difficult for them to vote. I have not missed voting at an election to date but I have not enjoyed the process. The first problem is checking whether I am yet a voter, then finding out where the venue for polling is, the venue is a moving target at Parel at least. Then finding the actual polling booth is very easy, that booth that has the smallest line is where I vote because the rich and famous in my area do not come out and vote. The largest queue is where the poor reside, it’s a very stark contrast at Parel. Its great castigating the rich and famous for not voting, deriding them on TV, the fact is that they do not vote and if we need to give them one less reason for not voting, they will vote.


Let me start by making it very clear that I am not saying  anywhere that we only have people voting by phone or computer, we allow anyone to vote either by a phone/computer or by the old way using a EVM, which by the way is state-of-the-art technology. Once you chose one method, you would have to stand on your head to use the other method. This means we have two voting lists, one for the EVM or physical vote, one using technology, the safer cyber way.


My gameplan at the SEC committee was as follows. The computer/laptop was dead and the mobile phone rules. If we had to allow only one device to be used to cast a vote, my vote would go to the phone. I have yet to see an Indian who does not carry a phone at least in a city, in villages the rules would change but we are fooling ourselves if we believe that rural India does not use technology. We are also fortunate that Android and oOS take up a bulk of the phone market, the other two yet in the fray are Windows and Blackberry. Thus to cover nearly 99% of the phones, the Election Commissioner has to create just four Apps. We have Apps that do everything the human mind has not thought off and it would cost under Rs 10 lakh to create such an App. For using a laptop or a computer you can use a website instead of an App or download programs and install them on your computer.


I, as a person who would want to vote using a technology solution, would simply have to go once to a voting centre and get myself removed from the physical voters list and get myself electronically registered. If we had a technology savvy state, this process could have been undertaken at the same time I applied for an Aadhaar card. My biggest problem with the Aadhaar card is that it does not use technology, I would want it to use a chip, it instead uses a piece of paper and hence it really needs to be renamed to an Aadhaar paper than a card. The state already has my eye scan and my fingerprints, you need no more biometrics. At the voting centre all that they do is take my fingerprints and eye scan and Computerji will identify me as Vijay Mukhi, remove my name from the physical voters’ list and add my name to the electronic voters’ list along with my current constituency. All this should take less than a second if the voters list was computerised. I forget to mention that before I went to the centre, I had already downloaded the App on my mobile and now to activate it, I simply use my Aadhaar card number or another number the system gives me or my biometrics. This is simply a question of detail. For using a laptop, I would visit a website, download a program for my OS, the rest would be the same.


Come voting day, when I activate my App, it simply goes to the master server owned by the EC, finds out my constituency and then displays the candidates, I use touch to select the candidate and my vote is cast. No finding voting booths, no standing in short or long queues, no summer heat or winter cold, no finding time to vote, etc, etc. Now if I refuse to cast my vote, the state can put me behind bars for life and throw away the key. There would be teething troubles like me losing my phone, the App would not start, if it does start, no network connectivity etc. Lots of such problems would arise, all of them solvable. The physical voting list would be smaller in size and hence boothcapturing would also come down as a large percentage of the population would not use the present form of voting.


I spoke to a large number of people from all walks of life. The political class had lots of issues. The main one was that a large mass of people who did not vote would now vote. The uncertainty there was who would they vote for. Because of this not a single political party came out and supported what we were planning to do. The second issue was of secrecy of your vote. In the present system, no one knows or can ever know who you voted for. In the new system, a political party can insist that unless you vote for me in front of my eyes, I will not pay you for your vote. If I want to sell my vote, no law can stop me. By using technology, you can only vote once. The political class should be happy with this as voters cannot commit their vote to more than one political party. The biggest unknown for politicians was that some political party would hijack the entire process by using a virus and hence win the elections. My only answer was that if this was possible, then the banking system would have already crumbled. Why use a virus to win a vote in a country, I would use technology to rob the entire banking system. This way I would not have to govern nations, I could buy them all.


Another area that needs reforms is the creation of election rolls. I keep seeing ads asking me to check physically whether I am on the rolls or not. It is only recently that I could check the voters rolls online. Once I am on the rolls, why should my name ever be removed. The day I die, my family registers my death and automatically my name gets removed. If I move from one place to another, I should fill up an online form, get authenticated and my name moves from one roll to another. Every political party I spoke to was worried that as the election rolls have not been updated the right way, election malpractice is very common. We can use the Aadhaar card as starting point for cleaning up the voting lists.  After all maintaining a database of a billion people is a very easy job to do in the world of big data.


We all need to vote otherwise democracy does not survive. At the same time we need to make sure that we must use technology to make it easier to get people to vote. There was a huge hue and cry when we shifted to the EVM from paper ballots, there will be a high hue and cry when we take the next step and allow people to vote from the device they choose. Take the case of the old and infirm, how do we get them to vote. We are also being very elitist because I can take a week off to vote, the daily wage earner cannot take time off to vote, he/she needs technology more than the rich. If we do not make voting easier, then people will not vote and society would lose. We trust technology with our lives – robotic surgery, to drive our cars, our money, everything important that we do. Then why do we not use technology to help us cast our vote. It great seeing our idols, coming out and asking us to vote, time has proved that we turn a deaf ear to what they say to us.


Ideally, the Election Commission of India should be everywhere asking people to remove their names from the physical voters list. After all we are a country that runs technology for the advanced world. Knowing our EC, and I am not being a cynic and I am not yet a senior citizen, but it is highly improbable that I would ever cast my vote using my mobile phone.


Instead of banning exit polls, opinion polls, etc, our EC must use more technology and not less technology in our entire election process.


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