Election Commission, Congress face off over voter turnout data | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Election Commission, Congress face off over voter turnout data

May 11, 2024 10:57 AM IST

On May 7, the Congress chief wrote a letter to leaders of the INDIA bloc, alleging discrepancies in the voting data released by the poll body

New Delhi: The Election Commission of India (ECI) on Friday termed Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge’s recent letter to INDIA bloc leaders over voter turnout data an attempt to “create confusion, misdirection and impediments in the conduct of free and fair polls”, prompting the Opposition party to call the poll body’s response “regrettable”.

 (Representative Photo)
(Representative Photo)

On May 7, the Congress chief wrote a letter to leaders of the INDIA bloc, alleging discrepancies in the voting data released by the poll body. Sharing the letter on X, Kharge had said that “apart from the delay, the voter turnout data released by the Commission does not mention crucial yet related figures, such as the votes polled in each Parliamentary Constituency and in the respective Assembly Constituencies.” He also alleged that the “credibility of the Election Commission” was at an all-time low.

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In a 21-page response with a series of annexure, the poll body on Friday rejected the charges of mismanagement and delay in the release of voter turnout data in the first two phases of the Lok Sabha elections.

“During the election period, the Commission scrupulously avoids commenting on political parties and takes the hard-hitting of several public questions and accusations on its own shoulders as it believes in a respectful collaborative equation with all political parties, so critical for healthy Indian democracy. However, the Commission has found your communication placed in the public domain in the middle of the ongoing election process as highly undesirable and one that appears designed to create confusion/misdirection/impediment to the conduct of smooth, free and fair elections which is the mandate of ECl under the constitution. Therefore, to uphold the integrity of the election process, in the face of aggression on the vitals of live conduct of the election coming from your statements, the Commission categorically rejects your insinuations/ allegations and advises you to exercise caution and refrain from making such statements,” EC said.

Also Read: Lok Sabha Election 2024: Plea in Supreme Court questions EC’s delay in release of poll turnout data

Till the end of phase three, the poll body had not released data about the number of eligible voters (electors) in each parliamentary constituency, making it impossible to calculate whether the absolute number of voters has increased or decreased. 

Refuting allegations of delay, EC said there is always a time lag in reporting estimated data on poll day. “Voters continue to vote even after 6:00 pm in long queues at many polling stations and can be verified by actual close of poll time recorded,” it said.

In the 21-page response with eight annexures, the EC called allegations by Kharge “unwarranted”, “insinuations and innuendos” and an “aggression on vitals of live election operations”.

The Congress, however, termed ECI’s response to Kharge’s letter “regrettable”. “The approach of the Election Commission to addressing these issues is deeply regrettable,” AICC general secretary Jairam Ramesh said in a statement.

“Both the content and intent of the letter will be a permanent blot on the reputation of an institution that can boast of luminaries like Sukumar Sen, TN Seshan, JM Lyngdoh and others,” he added.

The fresh war of words comes as the EC is already battling concerns from political parties – including the Trinamool Congress, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPIM] and the Congress – over polling data.

Later in the day, several members of the Opposition’s INDIA bloc, including Congress’s Abhishek Singhvi and Salman Khurshid, and Trinamool Congress (TMC) Derek O’Brien, met senior EC officials reiterating concerns about the delay in publishing voter turnout figures.

“We had made this complaint a long time ago, but unfortunately the Election Commission has uploaded its reply just a little while before our meeting today. We have filed 11 complaints against PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, but no action has been taken on them,” the alliance said in a statement released later.

Ramesh called EC’s response “extraordinary”. Taking to X, he wrote, “The response of the Election Commission of India (ECI) to the issues raised by the Congress President in his letter to the INDIA parties is simply beyond description. The EC is a Constitutional body entrusted with the responsibility of being an impartial body that ensures, and is seen to ensure, a level playing field to all political parties. Both the content and intent of the letter will be a permanent blot on the reputation of an institution that can boast of luminaries like Sukumar Sen, TN Seshan, JM Lyngdoh and others.”

On May 6, the TMC had written to Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar, asking him to urgently furnish the constituency-wise precise voter turnout figures for phases 1 and 2 along with an explanation and clarification for the delay in releasing the voter turnout report.

The party called the lack of data about eligible electors “a paradigm shift from the previous voter turnout report(s) from the past election(s), where the ECI provided a detailed report in this regard”.

On May 3, Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) general secretary in a letter to Kumar, wrote, “The ECI has not come out with any explanation for the cause of this undue delay. What goes unanswered is also a surge of 6 per cent from the initial figures that the ECI put out and the final figure. … this variation of six per cent is unusual and raises some suspicion.” 

Also Read: Kharge writes to allies raising concerns over ECI’s delay in releasing poll data

He called on the ECI to release “state-wise, constituency-wise and assembly segment wise break-up of the initial and final percentage as also the number of votes cast” along with details of how these votes were cast – EVMs, postal ballots, and votes by personnel on duty.

On May 9, a group of lawyers, activists and bureaucrats, including noted psephologist Yogendra Yadav and senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan, also wrote an open letter to the ECI to proactively disclose Part I of Form 17C to allay doubts related to the fluctuating voter turnout figures across the first three phases of the ongoing general elections.

Part I of form 17C is the account of votes recorded which is to be filled by the presiding officer of every polling station, a true copy of which must be provided to the polling agent of every candidate as per Section 49S of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961.

The election commission in its response on Friday, pointed this out as it said that “political parties know the constituency-wise number of electors at every stage of the electoral cycle as they are intimately involved in the preparation of electoral roll”.

It also said that the number of electors by polling station, “aggregated to constituency level, is available with every candidate and political party”. The poll body said that “there is no scope at all for any deviation with the number of votes polled as recorded in Form 17C, a signed copy of which is made available to all contesting candidates on close of poll”.

The EC pointed out that the Congress had not raised any concerns about any of its candidates not receiving a copy of the electoral roll, or its polling agents not getting a copy of Form 17C at the end of the three polling days, or other such concerns. It also said that no Congress candidate over the last three years had filed any election petition over a discrepancy in data.

To be sure, until the EC provided PC-wise data about electors on May 7, this data was not available in the public domain or on the EC website. Different states have different formats for displaying this data on the websites of their respective chief electoral officers. No state gives the final number of eligible voters; instead, they list the entire electoral roll by district. Some states have not updated the electoral rolls online so the data is from previous years.

In its response to Kharge, the EC said, “It may be noted that the Commission is not legally bound to publish any voter turnout data at the aggregate level of a constituency, a State or in a phase of election because voter turnout is recorded at polling station level in statutory Form 17C which is prepared by the Presiding Officer and signed by polling agents of candidates present. Copies of Form 17C are shared with polling agents present immediately, as the strongest measure of transparency. So, candidates are aware and in possession of exact voter turnout data in absolute numbers even before it is known to ECI.”

Concerns have been raised by political parties as well as the media about the electoral data. For instance, HT observed that according to the data released by the EC to media on April 19, the turnout for phase I at 9 pm (62.37%) differed from the final data released on April 30 (66.14%) by 3.77 percentage points. Three states saw their voter turnout increase by more than 10 percentage points – Lakshadweep, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.

For phase 2, a similar comparison was not possible as the EC did not provide VTRs throughout the polling day on April 26 to the media and instead directed journalists to the Voter Turnout app. According to the data on the app accessed by HT on April 28 at around 7 pm, the reported VTR did not change between April 28 and April 30 for any state except Manipur where it increased by 2.95 percentage points from 81.9% to 84.85%.

In its letter, the EC gave details of how and when data is updated on the Voter Turnout App and what causes changes, arguing that “it is not a delay”.

The election body said that the app displays “estimated approximate voter turnout on the poll day every two hours (9:30am, 11:30am, 1:30pm, 3:30pm, 5:30pm), then it displays live updation of estimated approximate voter turnout from 7:00pm onwards till mid-night, as further reports are received from the field”.

During phase 3, HT monitored the app and reported the data at 9am, 11am, 1pm, 3pm and 5pm after which it stopped giving the time on the app. The number continued to change continuously until the next day but not for all states. For instance, for UP, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, Goa, Karnataka, MP and Maharashtra, the VTR on the app did not change between the 11:40pm press release of EC on May 7 and 2:38pm on May 8 when HT checked the app. For others – Assam, Gujarat and West Bengal –  the change was less than a percentage point.

Also Read: Lok Sabha polls: EC releases voter turnout data; most regions see dip

In its response to Kharge, the EC said there is always a time lag in reporting estimated data on poll day. “Voters continue to vote even after 6:00pm in long queues at many polling stations and can be verified by actual close of poll time recorded,” the letter said.

The EC said that as polling parties arrive late at night and data is updated with actual numbers from Form 17C on poll day, on P+1 day after scrutiny is conducted in the presence of candidates and observers, and “even P+2 or P+3 day due to difficult geography and weather conditions”.

“This data may further get updated for any constituency where repoll is being conducted, on conclusion of repoll and arrival of parties which is normally on P+4 days. Thus, there is no delay in the publication of data for a constituency or a State on voter turnout application. Issuance of press note on 30th April 2024 was nothing but presenting the data already displayed and available in App live. It is thus not a delay,” EC stated.

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