Enabling Visually Challenged Voters

Section 11 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, states that the Election Commission of India and the state election commissions shall ensure that all polling stations are accessible to persons with disabilities and all materials related to the electoral process are easily understandable by and accessible to them. The Act was made to give effect to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is an international human rights treaty of the United Nations intended to ensure full and effective participation and inclusion of persons with disabilities in society.

According to the Strategic Framework on Accessible Elections adopted on July 4, 2018 in the National Consultation on Accessible Elections, the Election Commission is committed to building an equal access framework for persons with disabilities supported by the fundamentals of responsiveness, respect and dignity to enhance elector confidence among them; and support initiatives for improved service offerings to enhance their electoral participation. The Election Commission recognises the use of accessible technological tools for facilitating persons with disabilities of different categories to cast their votes.

Yet, persons with disabilities have been fighting for long for their right to vote on par with other citizens. There are about 2.68 crore disabled persons in India, out of whom about 50 lakh are visually challenged. Voters with disability in seeing are still able to cast a vote at an election booth with the assistance of a companion. An assisted vote, while not a secret and independent one, still allows such voters to participate in the electoral process. However, in the present system of voting through EVMs, there is no way of knowing if the assisting person has indeed cast his/her vote for the candidate picked by the voter with disability in seeing.

For the convenience of voters with disability in seeing, there is Braille signage on the balloting unit of EVM. On the right side of the balloting unit along the candidates’ vote button, digits 1 to 16 are embossed in Braille signage for the guidance of such voters. However, a voter with disability in seeing can press a button but cannot ascertain the actual voting. The voter is not sure whether his/her vote is recorded or not, if recorded, whether it is recorded in favour of the candidate to whom it was intended or not. Moreover, not every person with disability in seeing understands Braille.

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Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) is an independent system attached with the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) that allows the voters to verify that their votes are cast as intended.  However, there is no such facility by which the voters with disability in seeing can verify their voting. There is a need to provide a system by which the voters with disability in seeing can get immediate audio verification of their cast votes.

Image Text to Speech Conversion Device

The basic idea of the proposed stand-alone real-time system is to capture the image of the paper slip generated by the printer in VVPAT, extract text from it and convert the text into speech that can be listened to through the headphones.

The ITTS device consists of four main components: camera, programmable system (optical character recognition software and text-to-speech engine), headphones and battery. As the optical character recognition software can not recognise and convert the image of the symbol of the candidate printed on the paper slip in VVPAT into text, the name of the symbol needs to be loaded in the VVPAT machine along with the serial number, the name of the candidate and the image of the symbol.

The ITTS device shall be fixed inside the VVPAT machine in such a way that the voters’ clear view through the transparent window of the VVPAT remains unobstructed and the printed paper slips displayed for seven seconds in VVPAT come within the field of view of its camera lens. Externally, it requires a set of headphones with volume controls in them.

Upon entering the booth, the voter puts on the headphones. When a vote is cast, a paper slip is printed in the VVPAT containing the serial number, the name of the candidate and the image and name of the symbol of the candidate and remains exposed through a transparent window for seven seconds. The ITTS device captures the image of the paper slip using its camera. The extraction of the text from the image is done by optical character recognition software and the process of converting text to speech is done by the text-to-speech engine. The audio output is then listened to through the headphones. It states the serial number, the name of the candidate and the name of the symbol of the candidate. The voter listening at the headphones can instantly verify that his/her vote is cast as intended. Thereafter, the temporary files created in the ITTS device during this process get eliminated automatically creating space for new files.

The proposed stand-alone system is not vulnerable to manipulation. The manufacturers of EVMs (Bharat Electronics Ltd. and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd.) are capable of making inexpensive and efficient image text to speech conversion (ITTS) devices using current technologies.

Voting is an act of expression which has immense importance in a democratic system. With an intent to have fullest transparency in the electoral system and to restore the confidence of voters with disability in seeing in the EVMs, it is necessary to provide them the facility to verify their voting. It is the voters themselves who must consider their voting experience to be a success. To have confidence in the outcome of an election, they must believe that they successfully used the voting system. Without this belief, the outcome of the election may be questioned.

Therefore, in order to empower the voters with disability in seeing to verify their cast votes, the Election Commission of India should incorporate a system of “image text to speech conversion” in the Electronic Voting Machines.

EVMs Must Flag Candidates With Criminal Records

The concept of ‘The Rule of Law’ is ingrained in our Constitution. However, when politicians with criminal records get elected to law-making bodies and even become part of the government, it defeats the whole idea behind establishing ‘The Rule of Law’. Law-breakers after becoming the law-makers ensure that only those laws and policies are made that serve their interest and are not in contradiction to it. The criminalization of politics in an electoral democracy thus poses a threat to the very foundation of Republic of India. In spite of various directions given by the Supreme Court of India from time to time, no political party has shown the will to eliminate criminal elements from their fold.

Over the last three general elections, there has been an alarming increase in the strength of criminals entering politics. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) report , out of the 7,928 candidates who filed nomination for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 1,500 (19%) had declared criminal cases against themselves. In the previous Lok Sabha elections, held in 2014, out of 8,205 candidates, 1,404 (17%) candidates had been facing criminal charges while out of 7,810 candidates in 2009 general elections, 1,158 (15%) had criminal records.

The report also pointed out that 1,070 (13%) candidates in 2019 elections had serious criminal cases including cases related to rape, murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping, or crimes against women. The percentage of candidates facing serious criminal charges in 2014 was 11% and in 2009, the figures was 8%. The report also shows that 49% constituencies 2019 had three or more candidates with declared criminal cases pitted against one another. This figure was 45% and 36% in 2014 and 2009 respectively. The rising criminalization of politics hence is an established fact.

A candidate is required to file an affidavit called Form 26 at the time of filing his nomination papers, which furnishes information on his/her assets, liabilities, educational qualifications, criminal antecedents (convictions, stayed convictions and pending cases) and public dues, if any. The Supreme Court has ruled that a candidate stands disqualified from contesting elections if his conviction in a criminal case, wherein a jail term of two or more years has been awarded, is not stayed. The apex court has also directed political parties to publish the criminal antecedents of their candidates on their website and social media platforms along with the reasons for fielding each one of these candidates, notwithstanding their ‘winnability’. The candidates have also been directed to publish such antecedents in newspapers and television at least three times before polls.

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However, various survey reports show that these measures are not sufficient to make the voters aware of the antecedents of contesting candidates, taking into account the factors like illiteracy rate, access to mass communication means and general unawareness. As per National Statistical Commission’s survey report, literacy rate among persons of age seven years and above during there are 718.74 million active internet users in India that comprise only 54.29% of the population and 45.71% of the country’s population still does not have internet access. Publicity of criminal antecedents of contesting candidates through newspapers and television three times before polls too have a limited reach.

According to a survey report on ‘governance issues and voting behaviour’ conducted by Association for Democratic Reforms in 2018, although 97.86% voters felt that candidates with criminal background should not be in Parliament or state assembly, only 35.20% voters knew that they could get information on criminal records of the candidates. In relation to voting candidates with criminal antecedents, the maximum number of voters (36.67%) felt that people vote for such candidates because they are unaware of his/her criminal records.

While not all citizens have access to mobile internet or a television set, each eligible voter of India has access to the electronic voting machine (EVM) and hence it could be used as an effective tool to make voters aware of the candidates with criminal antecedents. The Election Commission of India prints ballot papers used in the units of EVMs for Lok Sabha elections in white colour and for assembly elections in pink. This photograph is prescribed to be displayed on the Ballot Unit and on postal ballot papers in order to “avoid any confusion, which may arise when candidates with same or similar names contest from the same constituency”.

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If the panels (name, photo and election symbol) of the candidates with declared criminal cases against themselves are printed in red on the ballot papers, the voters could identify such candidates and thereby make an informed choice. Red is the traditional colour of warning. Printing their panels in red will help illiterate adults and other voters encountering difficulties in accessing the details of the criminal antecedents of the contesting candidates make a careful decision and discourage political parties from fielding such candidates in elections.

A copy of the list of contesting candidates is also displayed prominently outside each polling station. The Election Commission will do well to display a copy of the summarised version of affidavits of contesting candidates along with it. It will help voters to check the antecedents of contesting candidates before entering the polling station.

This will help voters exercise their right to vote in an informed manner and discourage political parties from fielding candidates with criminal antecedents in elections. Electoral reforms are an ongoing process based on the changing technology and challenges. The measures suggested could be launched in trial phases and limited to a zone or certain constituencies. If positive results show up, the same reforms can be launched at a large scale to rid our legislature of criminal elements. This will be a service both to the polity and the republic.

The writer is an academic researcher in the field of good governance and policy-making