As Meghalaya voted to elect a new legislative Assembly on February 27, several polling booths in the state saw extraordinarily long queues. Electronic voting machines had malfunctioned in these booths, slowing down the process significantly. Prospective voters complained that for large parts of the morning the queues had completely stagnated. “From 8.30 [am] to 9.30 [am], the line just didn’t move, so I decided to go back home,” said a voter in state capital Shillong.

Meghalaya’s Chief Electoral Officer Frederick Roy Kharkongor confirmed that voting in many booths had been delayed due to “machine problems”. According to Kharkongor, around 56 electronic voting machines malfunctioned at various points of time. Apart from that, the newly-introduced Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail or VVPAT system failed in 88 places.

The paper audit trail

The Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail system allows a machine to dispense a slip to the voter that bears the symbol of the party they have voted for on the electronic voting machine. It allows voters to verify if their vote has been cast correctly. In 2013, the Supreme Court had asked the Election Commission to begin using this system in a phased manner in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.

The paper trail was introduced in Assembly elections for the first time last year, with Goa, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh being test cases. It was supposed to be a transparency measure as several Opposition parties had alleged that electronic voting machines were rigged in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Earlier this month, the Gujarat High Court issued a notice to the Election Commission and the BJP, among others, after four petitions challenged the state Assembly election results. The petitioners asked that the paper slips be counted. Yet Gujarat had also seen instances of the paper audit trail malfunctioning at various places during December’s elections.

Bureaucratic chaos?

Kharkongor insisted that there were only a few glitches. “And the problems were minor, they were linking errors or low battery problems,” he said.

Why did it then create so much confusion, stalling voting in several areas for hours? The delay caused by these snags forced the Election Commission to extend the 4 pm deadline of the polls. Till 5 pm, the state witnessed 67% voting, a significant mark-down from the 2013 Assembly elections when the voter turnout was 87%.

“Most of these problems happened in city areas, where queues were already long,” averred Kharkongor.

However, Vasava Raj, a senior deputy general manager with Bharat Electronics Limited, the public sector undertaking that has manufactured electronic voting machines and the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail modules used in Meghalaya, said unfamiliarity of polling staff with the paper trial machines in addition to technical snags were responsible for the problems.

Raj, who is in charge of the company’s technical team, responsible for the maintenance of the polling machines in Meghalaya, said the problems arose because the paper audits trails were being used for the first time in the state. “Earlier, an EVM used to have two units – the ballot unit and the control unit,” explained Raj. “Control unit is where counting takes place and ballot unit where you are casting the vote. But now there is a new unit, the VVPAT, which is used for the first time in Meghalaya.”

Raj said that while polling officials knew how to connect the control unit and the ballot unit, there was confusion about how to connect the new paper audit trail module. “In spite of training, there was confusion, and some connection mistakes were made,” claimed Raj.

Raj said mistakes in rectifying these connection errors further delayed proceedings. “Whenever there is an error, they are supposed to identify where the error is: the control unit, the ballot unit or the VVPAT. Then they are supposed to isolate that particular module. But in the confusion and stress, they must have thought let me replace the entire system.”