Complaint about vote carries risk
Few outside his immediate circle would have heard about Ebin Babu before Tuesday.
Fewer still would have heard about Rule 49MA although it has been around since 2013.
Rule 49MA of Conduct of Elections Rules holds that if a voter complains of a mismatch between his or her vote and that displayed on the VVPAT machine screen, he or she will be given an option for a test vote after being told of the consequences.
Now comes the catch: if the complaint is not proven during the test vote, the consequence will be arrest, trial and, if found guilty, imprisonment up to six months with a possible fine of up to Rs 1,000.
Ebin, 21, learnt it the hard way in the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha seat in Kerala on polling day on Tuesday. But Preeja Shiju, a voter in another booth in the Kerala capital where Shashi Tharoor is trying to retain his seat, chose not to take a chance and walked away from the test vote although she also had the same complaint.
The fate of Ebin, who was arrested and released on bail after the test vote that went against him, and the reluctance of Preeja to pursue the matter have prompted parties to ask whether the rule will end up intimidating and muzzling voters who may have genuine complaints. Questions also arose on whether the same machines whose veracity had been challenged could be used to conduct the test vote.
When the rule was incorporated in 2013, no one appeared to have factored in this possibility.
In the morning, Ebin had complained to officials in a booth in the Kerala capital that the name of the party displayed on his VVPAT screen did not match with the option he had selected on the voting machine. A clear image of the VVPAT slip appears on the screen for seven seconds before it drops down. In select booths, these slips are tallied with the final count on the result day.
When Ebin complained, the polling was stopped, he was informed of the rule and the consequences of falsely challenging the process and made to cast a test vote. The consequences are also mentioned in a declaration form which he signed.
In the presence of booth agents of all parties and the presiding officer, Ebin pressed a party’s button on the EVM and the same name was displayed on the VVPAT slip.
The machine passed the test. Ebin did not. He was handed over to police and had to spend several hours in the local police station before obtaining bail from there. He was booked under IPC Section 177 (furnishing false information) and Section 26 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (which deals with the powers of the presiding officer).
At the booth, the voting unit, including the EVM and the VVPAT machine, were replaced.
In Kovalam, the celebrated beach that also falls in the Thiruvananthapuram seat, Preeja did not opt for a test vote after the rule was read out to her when she complained that she had voted for the Congress but the VVPAT slip displayed the name of the BJP.
Here too, the voting unit was replaced.
Collector K. Vasuki ruled out the possibility of EVM tampering. “What happened here is that the ballot unit jammed and showed a minor error when the 77th vote was cast. In such situations, the procedure is to change the machine,” Vasuki said in a video message.
The collector said Preeja could vote again on Tuesday if she wished.
The chief electoral officer of Kerala, Teeka Ram Meena, told The Telegraph that the FIR against Ebin was based on Section 49MA, which was introduced through an amendment on August 14, 2013.
“As per the clause, a voter has the right to challenge by complaining to the presiding officer that the vote he cast went for the wrong party. In this case, he (Ebin) complained that the VVPAT showed the wrong party,” Meena said.
“So the way out was a ‘test vote’ (which is not counted) after stalling the whole poll process in that particular booth. By signing for the test vote, the voter is accepting that he is liable for punishment if his claim is found to be wrong,” Meena added.
“He (Ebin) then cast the test vote in full view of booth agents of all the parties and the presiding officer. In this case, the VVPAT showed exactly the same party he cast the test vote for,” Meena said.
Senior Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala said: “It is wrong to put the onus on proving an error on a voter who complained about it. We cannot agree with such a thinking.”
Former chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi told this newspaper that false complaints needed to be dealt with seriously.
In response to a question, he said: “A false complaint that leads to interruption of the poll, delaying people in the queue, casts aspersions on the poll cannot be taken lightly. It’s not a childish sport to laugh at.”
During trial polling at a booth in Cherthala in Kerala’s Alappuzha district before actual voting was to begin, all votes went to the BJP irrespective of which EVM button was pressed.
The polling officer changed the EVM after election agents of the Congress and the Left protested.
Malfunctioning EVMs delayed the voting process in three booths each in Kasargod and Malappuram. A similar problem was reported from one booth in Quilandy that falls in the Vadakara constituency.
Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan slammed the Election Commission for the EVM problems.
“It is clear that the Election Commission did not consider the issues regarding the voting machines with enough seriousness,” Vijayan, a CPM politburo member, said.
Kerala BJP general secretary M.T. Ramesh lashed out at the LDF and the Congress-led United Democratic Front for complaining about EVMs. “It’s the rehearsal of the explanation they will come out with once the results are out,” he said, asserting that the BJP would open its account in the state.
A small snake was found inside a VVPAT machine at a booth in Kannur’s Mayyil, holding up the start of voting. Polling began after the snake was removed.
Additional reporting by Pheroze L. Vincent