Days after it emerged that the controversy about a faulty electronic voting machine in Madhya Pradesh had more to do with inaccurate media reporting than rigged technology, the same script seems to have played out in Rajasthan’s Dholpur.
On April 9, Aak Tak reported that at least one EVM being used for the Dholpur Assembly bye-poll was registering votes for the Bharatiya Janata Party even when other buttons were pressed. One voter told the news channel that though he voted for the Congress, the slip that registered his vote had the BJP’s lotus symbol on it.
The story was immediately picked up by the Congress-led Opposition in Rajasthan, and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who has seized upon reports of faulty EVMs to allege that the Election Commission is somehow rigging elections on behalf of the BJP. The Dholpur incident became yet another rhetorical point in an Opposition narrative that suggests EVMs are being fixed to favour the BJP.
As with the Madhya Pradesh incident, where it emerged that shoddy local reporting was picked up by the national press and turned into a story about EVMs that only voted for the BJP, the Dholpur case is riddled with holes.
What officials say happened
According to Dholpur district collector Suchi Tyagi, as many as 10 electronic voting machines had to be replaced for the April 9 bye-poll because of technical errors found in their control units. While errors in eight machines were diagnosed before voting began, two came to light during the polling. “But we have so far come across no complainants who say that they voted for one party and saw VVPAT slip pertaining to another.”
A Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail machine attached to the EVM allows voters to check if the machine is recording the right vote. A paper slip with the party symbol showing the vote that has been recorded appears on a display screen for seven seconds and then automatically drops inside the machine. It was being used for the first time in Rajasthan.
Returning Officer Manish Faujdar told reporters that the machines that had to be replaced had actually stopped working because of technical errors. Explaining further, a district official who asked to remain anonymous said that the machines flashed error codes, which can pertain to a wide range of issues, including function of cables, cells and others. As a result, technicians had to be called to the polling booths who then decided to replace those EVMs. According to the official, EVMs do not function when it displays an error code.
The case of polling booth number 163 in Dholpur was different. Unlike the other technical errors, the problem with the EVM there seemed to be the result of district authorities messing up. “The mock drill data in the control unit of the voting machine at poll number 163 was not erased,” Madhya Pradesh Chief Electoral Officer of Rajasthan Ashwini Bhagat told Scroll.in.
This means that the machine had already counted a certain number of votes, from the mock drill that was held to test it before election day. Officials realised that the total number of votes recorded by the machine was greater than the number of votes that had actually been cast that day, and so they halted voting. A re-poll for booth number 163 was held on April 11.
Despite these issues, Bhagat said that the Election Commission had so far not come across any voter complaining that the VVPAT slip showed a different slip than the one of the party they had voted for.
What was reported
Aaj Tak’s report, however, said that there was a complaint about an EVM registering the wrong vote. The news channel’s story quoted a man named Rakesh Jain saying he voted for the Congress, but saw a slip with the BJP’s symbol emerging. It also attributed some of these details to Faujdar, the Returning Officer.
Faujdar did speak to reporters later, with his statement having been recorded and circulated with the local press, but his comments only refer to technical errors and do not include any reference to Rakesh Jain, the voter who allegedly complained about an EVM. Attempts to reach Faujdar have been unsuccessful.
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The local administration, according to Dholpur district collector Suchi Tyagi, only heard about the complaint after they came across the Aaj Tak report. This prompted them to look out for Rakesh Jain, who was quoted by the news channel. The administration did find a voter with the same name, who had cast his vote at booth number 163 , and they asked him to sign an undertaking about his experience that day.
The undertaking in Hindi signed by Rakesh Jain, a copy of which is in Scroll.in’s possession, says: “I did not speak to anyone from Aaj Tak channel nor did I say that I voted for Congress and saw slip pertaining to BJP. I am satisfied with the voting mechanism and I am oblivious of how I was named in a news story.”
Rajasthan Chief Electoral Officer Ashwini Bhagat said that Jain’s undertaking is part of a detailed report which he has sent to Election Commission of India concluding that no such complaint was received.
The story took a turn on the evening of April 10, when the district administration came across a video clip recorded by a local reporter who freelances for a Hindi news channel. In the video, a person can be seen complaining about a mismatch between the party symbol he voted for and the slip he saw on the VVPAT machine. But he does not name the parties. The reporter, who did not wish to be identified, said that the man in the video had identified himself as Rakesh Jain, although he does not say this in the recording. The video clip itself was not broadcast on Aaj Tak or any other TV channel.
The man in the video however is not the same as the Rakesh Jain whom the district authorities identified and asked to sign an undertaking.
“We have identified the man in the video and he is not Rakesh Jain,” said Dholpur collector Suchi Tyagi on the morning of April 11. “The man in the video is apparently the resident of another locality which does not come under the jurisdiction of poll booth number 163. Teams are looking out for him.”
Another senior officer, who did not wish to be identified, said that the poll booth in which the man identified in the video might have cast his vote in had indeed witnessed an EVM replacement, owing to a technical error, but no other voter from that booth has complained about an EVM and VVPAT mismatch. That issue is expected to be clearer once the man has been identified and questioned.
His testimony, in fact, becomes even more important because any official complaint about an EVM’s functioning requires the concerned voter to sign a declaration under the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961. Any false information on his or her part is punishable by imprisonment, penalty and/or both.
To add to the confusion, another video clip has also been making the rounds in Dholpur, featuring a person who does not identify himself on camera, but claims to have voted in poll booth number 163. The video shows the man saying that he voted for Congress and the VVPAT slip displayed the BJP symbol. When asked about this, however, the local officer said that until the evening of April 11 the administration was only aware of one clip which they had concluded was not of a voter from booth number 163.
Two days after the bye-poll took place, despite the story having gone national after it was picked up by Kejriwal and other Opposition figures, there are two videos, no trace of the people in them and, most importantly, no official complaint about any EVM registering votes different from the ones cast. The Election Commission also reiterated this in a press release issued on April 11.
“The Chief Electoral Officer has also informed that no complaint of mismatch in the voting has been reported from anywhere by voter or candidate/political party during the entire polling period,” the release said. “In light of above, the reports appeared in a section of media have been found to be incorrect and baseless.”