Digital Inclusion for citizens in India for democracy
Election Commission of India (ECI) is one of the important pillars of the democratic republic of India that has been conducting elections to parliament and state legislature as an onerous task since 1950. It is through elections that people participate in the formation of the government. They become the participant in decision-making through elections and therefore Commission always placed its giant efforts to make elections inclusive and transparent across the country.
Over the years, the Commission has made several laudable electoral reforms to strengthen democracy and increase the fairness of elections through the new technologies. So far, the journey of the Information & Communications Technology (ICT) of Commission has been quick in keeping abreast of new technological changes and in introducing improvements in the electoral process.
In the General Elections to Parliament of 2019, 610 million voters participated within a span of 74 days, which was perhaps the biggest ever election exercise to have been undertaken. Election Commission houses over 910 million electors database. 369 million voters used the Election Commission of India Mobile platform to search and confirm their name and polling station. On realizing their name not present, 6,52,533 forms for new registration, corrections and shifting to new locations were filed.
In the last few years, the ECI has meticulously examined and designed the ICT transformation keeping various stakeholders in mind. Starting from Voters, the ECI started National Voters’ Service Portal providing an online interface for form submission, tracking and finding names in the electoral roll.
Thereafter, in a very short span of 20 months, we have developed a suite of 20 web and mobile-based applications which have become the bedrock of electoral functions and the conduct of elections. The suite of 20 Apps provides the perfect ecosystem for rolling the giant wheel of the electoral system from Registration to Results and from Voters to Voting. The ICT is used depending upon the phase of elections. There are broadly four phases.
Phase 1: Non-Election Phase
This is the phase when there is no obvious activity undertaken for the preparation of an election. During this phase, the electoral staff are engaged in strengthening the health of the electoral roll. The Election Commission of India utilizes ICT application for new voter registration, correction of entries, and migration cases.
There are four methods by which the new voter is engaged.
First is through the use of the National Voter Service Portal. The website provides the facility of searching one's name in the electoral roll, registration of new voters, corrections and migration cases.
Second is through the use of the Voter Helpline Mobile app. The Election Commission designed an innovative mobile application which is called the Voter Helpline. The mobile application allowed searching for their names from 910 million in a fraction of a second.
The third is by SMS. By sending a short message at a designated number the voter can verify the presence of their names.
Fourth is by calling toll free 1950: 1950 is the one universal number available across India by which any user can call from any mobile operator and can talk to election-related issues in more than 22 languages. The agents are trained to operate on a universal portal for searching the names of the voters taking the requests of new forms and also lodging a complaint in case of any grievance.
The Election Commission had declared the year of Lok Sabha Election 2019 as accessible elections. So, one of the primary focuses was to ensure wider participation of persons with disabilities. The Election Commission of India launched a mobile application called PWD app. This application was specifically designed keeping the visual impairment & hearing impairment into mind. The PWD user can search their names & their voter ID details. The Commission provided detailed facilities for filling all forms. The application also provided the facility for marking themselves as PWD by describing their locomotive disability and requesting for wheelchairs.
To provide transparent access to various information in the Commission RTI online portal have been created by which allow the filing of RIght to Information by making an online payment.
Similarly, for voter education and encouragement, a dedicated online portal called as Systematic Voters' Education and Electoral Participation web portal, in short the SVEEP portal has been established which provided voters to participate in a more constructive manner. The portal has forums, quizzes, manuals, tutorials and also provided the facility for voters to share photographs of the election.
The new ECI main website was created which provided deep integration of mobile application and provided various accessibility and mobile-friendly features.
Election Commission of India has ensured that all electors are covered by the use of technology in electoral registration process. By making decentralised methods of service delivery through ICT, making ICT applications in 22 languages, and expanding the number of channels like Mobile, web, SMS and to Persons with Disabilities, it has successfully ensured inclusiveness.
Phase II: Pre-election
On the other hand, six months to one year before the election depending upon the nature of the election, large scale planning exercise is undertaken with a view to moving the Electronic Voting Machines to the designated Constituencies. The machines’ requirement is assessed for the entire country, and then the machine is moved from manufacturer to district warehouses and also from one district warehouse to the other district warehouse of the State based upon the requirements. All movements are recorded in the EMS software. ECI strictly ensures highly secure, non-interrupted and non manipulated distribution of machines from one place to another place using this web application.
One of the important activities by which the Commission ensures fair allocation of EVMs is through the Randomization of the machines first at the Assembly Constituency level and other at the Polling Station level. This has been done for the first time pan-India through the use of Information and Communication Technology. The whole process of the Randomization of Ballot Unit, Control Unit and VVPAT is being done in the presence of Political Parties, multiple times and once the parties are satisfied, the machines randomisation is finalized. This has added another layer of a confidence-building measure to establish the neutrality of the EVM machines.
Phase III: In-election
Date of the announcement to date of poll
cVIGIL, a mobile application designed by the Election Commission of India, provided Indian voters with an opportunity to report model code of conduct violations. The Commission’s application was widely available, easy to use, and generated legally tenable and prosecutable evidence to returning officers. The application was so stitched that every actor in the whole process was on either a mobile platform or web-based system. Chief Electoral Officers, District Election Officers, Returning Officers, flying squads and Police were all using the ICT application in prompt disposal of Model Code and Expenditure cases.
A trinity of factors worked simultaneously to make the platform a success: users captured photos or videos in real-time, all visual or videographic evidence was geotagged, and a “100-minute” countdown for time-bound disposal of complaints was ensured. The result: nearly 142,250 complaints were received in the Lok Sabha election period; 99% of which were disposed of, and 80% of which were found correct. Compare this to previous elections in which citizens were not co-opted in the enforcement of the code, and meager 20-25% of complaints were found correct. In the recently held Delhi assembly elections 94% of cases registered through the cVIGIL have been found to be correct.
One of the fundamental shifts that the cVIGIL has brought was the GIS-based location tagging. For example, the app automatically enabled a geo-tagging feature when users switched on their camera in the cVIGIL to report a violation. This meant that flying squads could know the precise location of a reported violation, and the image could be used as evidence in a court of law.
The Election Commission also has made provisions for the display of major Model Code of Conduct violations cases, the notice issued, and the decision of the ECI through an online portal called as MCC Violation Portal.
One of the most fundamental software for the conduct of elections is called ENCORE, which stands for ENabling Communications On Real Time Environment. This application is meant for Candidate Management, Poll turnout and Counting Management. It plugs in all other applications to provide a seamless interface for the Returning Officers to manage candidate, poll and counting.
The Candidate Scrutiny Application is a part of ENCORE that allows Returning Officers to do the scrutiny of the Nomination filed by the Candidate. This helps the Returning Officer to prepare the final list of contesting candidates and assigning symbols.
The information about candidates’ finances, their assets liabilities are also digitized and made available to the public by way of an affidavit portal. By visiting the affidavit portal, any citizen can read about the candidate details, his /her original affidavit consisting of assets, liabilities and criminal antecedents. The citizen can also file a counter-affidavit based upon the details available on the ECI website, which is also made available in a transparent manner to every citizens to make informed choices.
The Political Parties or any individual candidate can apply for permissions, in an online or offline mode, during elections. Election Permission application allows the candidates, political parties or any representatives of the candidate to apply for the permission for meetings, rallies, temporary offices, and others. This has reduced considerable time in the processing of permissions application for the returning officers. Various Nodal Officers such as Police, fire, environment, PwD are given the mobile app for giving no objections for the permissions.
Candidates can also track their application status through the web and by using specially designed Mobile app for a candidate called a Suvidha Candidate App.
One of the far reaching technology has been the introduction of ETPBS i.e. Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System meant for service voters. This is a hybrid solution for one way transmission of Postal Ballots directly on the inbox of the service voters. It obviates the need of printing and sending manually through a serpentine loop from Returning Officer to Service voter who may be posted in a remote corner. By deploying various security measures, the Postal ballot then returns to the Returning Officer on time using the speed post.
In 2019, 10,84,266 e postal ballots were received through Electronic transmission indicating 60.14% turnout, which is a significant improvement compared to 2014 when turnout was only 4% of service voters turnout.
Now think about the future case scenario. A voter walk-in to any designated Voting Centres, bio-authenticate himself and cast his vote. Election Commission is taking steps to bring online voting using blockchain and has made IIT Madras as its knowledge partner for the development of the technology. As per the initial model of development and the availability of the technology, India will perhaps become the 1st country in the world to experiment in such a large manner. This will greatly improve the voting rights of voters at large, provide secure and convenient ways to vote from anywhere and improves transparency. Having said that, ECI will only roll-out blockchain technology once it is satisfied with the level of security needed for online voting, ballot integrity and secrecy, various privacy issues, and stakeholders acceptance.
Date of poll
The Election Commission of India has come up with a unique application called the Booth App. Booth App is a mobile app which is used by the Polling Officials, Booth Level officer and Sector Magistrate during the poll day. The unique feature is that it also works in a completely offline environment without the use of the internet or even the mobile connection.
Every Voter slip is printed with an encrypted QR code and is distributed to all voters. Voters can also download the voter slip using the Voter Helpline Mobile app.
Once the Voter presents with the QR coded Voter slips, it gets scanned both at the gate and by the polling official. As the voter data is available directly from the central server, it provides the authentic information by which a voter is verified. Once the technology is scaled up, there would be no need for a physical copy of electoral roll during polling. The Poll will be conducted with Booth App and EVM only.
As the identification is automated, booth app reduces the queue in the polling station, helps in faster polling and allows error-free recording of two hourly poll turnout with minimal intervention.
Similarly, the voter can check up the queue in the polling station from the Voter Helpline App and plan their visit.
Another mobile application called Voter Turnout App provides real-time turnout details of each assembly constituency. Once the Booth App is universalised, Voter Turnout app will provide real-time polling station-wise turnout information without manual intervention.
Date of Counting
For the first time in the history of any democratic country, India has started publishing real-time results on the website and on the mobile app. As and when the rounds are completed, the returning officers publish the results on the centralized Counting Application and immediately the information is available on the website.
The citizens get to know results constituency-wise, party-wise, candidate-wise and each round-wise on the website. There is no other faster, transparent and authentic way of result publication than the ECI website.
One of the important facets during this Lok Sabha Election had been cybersecurity. As we are entering into the era of large scale technology induction in the conduct of elections, cybersecurity requires equal attention. The Commission undertook major training for ensuring maintenance of cybersecurity,starting from end-users to the application.
Phase IV: Post Elections
For monitoring day to day election expenditure incurred by the candidates, the election expenditure monitoring mechanism has been put in place in each constituency. This application is called the Election Expenditure App.
The final statistical report of the election is managed in the Index card application. Every detail of the elections is reconciled with the physical record, validated and verified by the Returning Officers and Chief Electoral Officer of the State and thereafter published on the website.
On the one hand, ECI had created a web of an IT ecosystem for the active conduct of elections, on the other hand, it is tunnelling, simplifying and consolidating them with a focus towards the stakeholders.
The suite of web-based and mobile app stitches end to end process of elections and provides valuable assistance for decision-makers. All stakeholders are engaged in a meaningful way starting from planning till the counting.
Commission’s existing and new ICT initiatives have played a vital role amongst stakeholders like electors, political parties, election functionaries, candidates and people at large for enhancing and strengthening confidence and trust during the elections.
ECI is on a continuous mission to further streamline the use of ICT application, bring in cutting-edge technologies like blockchain voting & online candidate nomination. The way each application has been carefully designed and implemented, it has provided an example of how the application should be kept simple, titrated based upon the changing needs of stakeholders, and most importantly ‘useful’.
Any new technology in India has to have well researched user interface, should be sensitive to remoteness and network unavailability, and must be multilingual to cater to the diversity of the languages of India. The focus should be towards the mobile applications which can be personalised for the common users & can be easily authenticated. While technology is a must, the equal focus should be on training and multimedia content, and is vital for any new technology to be useful at the grassroot level in India.
The Election Commission of India is an autonomous constitutional authority responsible for administering election processes in India. The body administers elections to the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha, State Legislative Assemblies in India, and the offices of the President and Vice President in the country. The Election Commission operates under the authority of Constitution per Article 324, and subsequently enacted Representation of the People Act.
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