Milind Deora Column: For real electoral reform, Election Commission should focus on financial transparency, its own independence

In a meeting with incumbent commissioners OP Rawat, Sunil Arora, and Ashok Lavasa of the Election Commission, former poll panel heads, flagged certain issues indicating what seems like a credibility crisis engulfing the Election Commission.

Concerns about the poll panel's independence under AK Joti were raised in the meeting, citing issues such as the EC’s decision to delink the announcement of polls in Himachal Pradesh from Gujarat, and disqualifying 20 AAP MLAs without holding oral hearings on the veracity of the complaints, The Indian Express reported.

Other issues which were discussed, included politicians indulging in hate speech and prolonged election periods, as well reforms pertaining to EVMs and polling booths.

I wholeheartedly welcome this renewed, much-needed conversation around electoral reform in the country, and this meeting suggests that the EC is willing to improve and transform its functioning to provide the country with more efficient and transparent election processes.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

The need of the hour is for the Election Commission to implement reforms and measures to streamline its processes on an urgent basis, particularly in light of the forthcoming 2019 general elections. Here are a few suggestions in three crucial areas of electoral reform: election financing, independence of the EC, and polling infrastructure.

Election financing: Restructuring election finance can be crucial in reducing the generation of black money in the economy by eradicating the need for cash transactions. Cash transactions, which form the primary mode of campaign finance, permit anonymity and therefore leave very little room for accountability. Till such time we can achieve transparency in funding that is completely traceable through the banking system, a halfway point is the introduction of electoral bonds – which, though anonymous, do not contribute to the generation of black money and provide much greater transparency than cash.

A second reform in election financing is to increase the stipulated campaign budgets for a candidate. Currently, the sanctioned limit for a Lok Sabha MP is 70 lakhs, which may be unrealistically low and facilitate the use of cash and consequently the generation of black money. By increasing expenditure limits, the EC can legitimize higher spending within realistic limits, and ensure that the money stays within the formal economy.

Independence of the Election Commission: A recommendation and demand made by the EC itself, and reiterated over the years, is to constitute an independent Secretariat along the lines of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha Secretariats. An independent Secretariat for the EC would allow the body to frame its own rules for recruitment, appointments, promotions, and the like, affording immunity from political and governmental pressure or interference. Other recommendations include establishing a collegium system for the appointment of election commissioners, and constitutionally protecting all three members and not just the Chief Election Commissioner.

Polling Infrastructure: As votes are counted from EVMs in each polling booth, it’s easy to discern the voting patterns in various localities, which can lead to the use of unfair practices by political parties. To counter this phenomenon, a popular reform suggestion is the use of totaliser machines, which can count the votes recorded in 14 EVMs as a group without revealing the individual voting patterns of any one polling booth.

The Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) allows a voter to corroborate her vote through a paper slip dispensed by the VVPAT machine immediately after the vote is cast. While a pilot was conducted during the 2014 general elections, and some state elections have utilized these machines since then, they have not been given the kind of investments required for nation-wide coverage, and have, indeed, been resisted. As the ex-CECs noted in the meeting, currently the VVPAT slips of only one polling both in every seat are matched with EVM-recorded votes.

I believe the VVPAT is an effective method to safeguard against both human tampering and equipment malfunction, and should be given the investment they deserve.


Updated Date: May 23, 2018 15:10 PM

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