It takes five million workers to pull off India’s election. Shreya Roy Chowdhury and Mridula Chari bring you their stories in a series called The Silent Army.

For the first part of the seven-phase Lok Sabha elections on April 11, Chaman Baboo, assistant manager with the National Thermal Power Corporation, was thrown together with a school principal, a junior engineer with the Uttar Pradesh Public Works Department and an office assistant.

Led by Baboo, they were polling party 315, and conducted elections at Sarfabad village in Uttar Pradesh’s Gautam Buddh Nagar. The constituency, which adjoins Delhi, had 1,525 polling booths and 6,100 polling staff. They had been organised into teams of four by a computer programme.

Out of 5,408,531,640,625 possible combinations of staff, the software brought together Baboo, principal Devendra Kumar, junior engineer Rupesh and Oriental Bank of Commerce’s office assistant Rajeev Kumar.

They first met on April 4, when they practiced working together. “This was required because [poll management] is teamwork,” said Baboo. But they were told the location of their booth only on April 10, when they collected the electronic voting machines from Noida’s mandi, or wholesale market.

Baboo had not heard of Sarfabad before and attempted to locate it on an online map. “Someone here said it is near Sector 20 [of Noida] so it must be somewhere there,” he said.

The confusion is by design. The Election Commission’s best bet against malpractice is leaving entirely to chance the function of assigning polling staff and EVMs to booths. Data for both staff and machines are fed into computer programmes that scramble and select. There are multiple rounds of “randomisation” in the presence of political parties.

“Against common perception, we do not know beforehand where each [electronic voting] machine will go and the machines have 24 hour security,” said Prashant Narnavare, collector and district election officer of Palghar district, Maharashtra, which votes in the fourth phase, on April 29.

Randomising machines

Even the different parts of an EVM machine are mixed and matched.

A complete electronic voting machine consists of a control unit from which the ballot unit is made active, one or more ballot units on which votes are cast, and now a voter verifiable paper audit trail machine, or the VVPAT. There is no predicting which units and VVPAT machine will finally come together.

The entire stock of EVMs is stored in a central strongroom, usually a godown, in the district. In a “first level checking”, engineers from Bharat Electronics Limited – which is one of two public sector units that manufacture EVMs in India – inspect them under security cover and the machines found malfunctioning are discarded, said Narnavare.

A few machines, up to 10% of the total number of the district’s polling stations, can be taken out at this stage for use in training. They must be marked as such in the Election Commission-built “EVM Management Software”. The rest go for the “first randomisation”.

In it, details of the machines are entered in the software which, in the presence of political parties, earmarks each for an Assembly constituency or segment within the district. “We give each party the details of which machines are going to which constituency,” said Narnavare.

After the list of candidates is finalised, the returning officer or assistant returning officer oversees a “second randomisation” for allocating EVMs to specific polling booths. This is done in front of political parties and election observers appointed by the Election Commission. The district staff take the final two-three days before polling to assemble the different units and arrange them by their destination, ready for the polling parties to pick up.

Assembling polling parties

The different elements of the election process are calculated to fall into place only when the EVMs are distributed immediately before polling. For the first phase, this was April 10 for most polling staff.

The polling staff, too, are selected by computer programmes. From a complete list of available staff furnished by government departments and public sector units, the requisite staff and 20% extra are picked at random for the first round of training.

Another round of computer-based randomisation follows after the candidate’s list for the constituency is declared. The final polling parties are then decided and called in for “second training”. In Gautam Buddh Nagar, this took place on April 4.

“The teams were formed then but we got the booth number and location when we marked attendance here [at the Noida mandi on April 10],” said an official from the district’s Irrigation Construction Division, asking not to be identified. He was presiding officer of a polling party and was at the mandi on April 10 to collect EVMs and other voting paraphernalia – forms, seals and posters.

But even after they are handed over, EVMs do not leave the district administration’s control. From the market itself, polling staff took buses commandeered from dozens of private schools to the polling booths where they spent the night guarding the machines. Only women were spared this vigil and for this reason, they are usually placed as second or third polling officer, said Baboo.

“We have been allowed to go home and return at 5 am to set up,” said Shiksha Singh, a clerk with Syndicate Bank. She was responsible for checking identity papers and applying indelible ink at Dhoom Manikpur, Gautam Buddh Nagar. She had not heard of Dhoom Manikpur before.

Shiksha Singh at Noida mandi. (Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury).

No ‘prior setting’

Similar safeguards are applied while deploying security personnel.

Bauna, 55, a civilian guard at Dankaur village’s police station, was told on April 9 that he would manage the crowds at Rabupura village on April 11. Hundreds like him, stick-wielding civilians or home guards, joined the polling parties at Noida mandi on April 10.

Bauna had used his stick just once, during a panchayat election in the district’s Phoolpur village a few years ago.

“I stopped a young man who had already voted from entering the booth again and a scuffle broke out,” he explained. Bauna emerged physically unhurt but in that commotion, someone had called him a “buddha”, or old man. “We were strangers to the villagers but is that any way to talk?” he asked, still offended.

Home guards Bauna and Ram Jiyavan. Jiyavan's son and daughter-in-law are both teachers and will serve as polling officers in a different district in later phases of the election. (Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury).

Most policemen on booth duty come from other districts, explained Upendra Kumar Agrawal, senior superintendent of police, of neighbouring Ghaziabad constituency, which also voted on April 11. It received 6,838 home guards, 3,169 constables, 549 head constables and 877 sub-inspectors from other districts.

“They were allotted polling stations and their duty cards were distributed over April 8 and 9,” said Agrawal. This, he added, makes any “prior setting” – agreement or understanding – between security staff and local party workers difficult.

Personnel of the Ghaziabad police included 2,105 constables, 1,129 head constables and 417 sub-inspectors. “The local police are usually not sent to the booths and if they are, the booths are outside the sub-division in which they are posted,” he explained. Plus, Ghaziabad also received 18 companies – 1,800 people – of central armed forces.

To monitor the process, the Election Commission deputes general, police and expenditure observers from other states. The general observer for Gautam Buddh Nagar, for example, came from Maharashtra. Reporting to him were over 350 micro observers. They were randomly selected from senior staff of public sector companies with offices in the district and were assigned booths on April 10.

The problems

Despite the safeguards, every election has brought a fresh round of controversy. Several political parties have claimed that EVMs can and have been hacked – allegations the Election Commission has denied. Its officials have countered such allegations saying that the machines are not connected to any communication network and operate on battery packs so it is impossible for hackers to take control of them remotely.

There were reports of “large scale malfunctioning of EVMs” from Andhra Pradesh on April 11, leading the chief minister, Telugu Desam Party’s N Chandrababu Naidu, to appeal to voters to queue up. In some booths, voting continued till 11 pm and at a few, till 3 am.

The party had claimed around 30%-40% EVMs had malfunctioned. The chief electoral officer of Andhra Pradesh, however, countered this claim, saying only 1.75% ballot units, 1.73% control units and 2.75% VVPATs needed replacement on April 11.

However, the gravest problem is one the Election Commission is aware of. In its efforts to be transparent to political parties, it may have undermined the privacy of the voter. While the staff for the whole exercise are randomised, counting of votes is done as per each booth.

Booth-wise voting data and electoral rolls are made available to political parties. This enables parties to detect patterns in the way residents of a small geographical area have voted and punish voters as the BJP’s Maneka Gandhi has threatened to do in Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh, on April 12.

The Election Commission had demanded “totaliser machines” that can pool votes from multiple EVMs but the BJP-led Union government has opposed such cluster counting.

Read more in the series:

The Silent Army: Behind India’s election are five million workers. This series brings you their stories

The Silent Army: In Arunachal, election staff are chosen on their ability to walk – for days

The Silent Army: In Maharashtra, a day in the life of a district election control room

The Silent Army: Meet the flying squads that are enforcing EC’s model code of conduct on the ground

The Silent Army: How 6 Arunachal officials travelled 2 days to open a poll booth for only 1 vote

The Silent Army: From inflammatory speeches to rugs at rallies, EC videographers shoot it all