Booth agents get absolute turnout data, but not all candidates can afford them

While Opposition parties and civil society groups want Form 17 C which has the absolute number of votes polled in a booth to be released online, Election Commission maintains that the information is supposed to be given only to polling agents, and not to the general public or even the media

Updated - May 19, 2024 09:44 pm IST

Published - May 19, 2024 06:00 pm IST - New Delhi

Poll officials with EVMs and other election material leave for election duty on the eve of the fifth phase of Lok Sabha elections in Hajipur, on May 19, 2024.

Poll officials with EVMs and other election material leave for election duty on the eve of the fifth phase of Lok Sabha elections in Hajipur, on May 19, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

It is 7 p.m. in the evening on a searing hot day in Delhi’s Sultanpuri area and Arun Kumar Garg is busy training a group of six to seven ground-level Congress workers for being booth agents for party candidates in the national capital for the Lok Sabha elections on May 25.

The heat doesn’t bother Mr. Garg, who says his party is in a race against time as they want to prepare the polling agents on all aspects specially on functioning of EVMs and now on the “much in news” Form 17 C.

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The Form 17 C, in simple terms, is the stamped certificate which is handed out to the polling agent of a candidate by the presiding officer of a booth and which contains the data on the absolute number of votes polled in that booth on the polling date as against the total number of registered electors along with many other details. It is this piece of paper which has become the bone of contention between the Opposition and civil society groups on one hand and the Election Commission of India on the other in the general election 2024.

The opposition heat stems from the fact that the ECI has not given out the absolute number of votes polled in any constituency in this general election unlike in 2019. Only voting percentages have been given that too after much delay in the first two phases. The ECI maintains that the Form 17 C (Part 1) which contains this detail about absolute number of votes polled among other information is supposed to be given only to the candidate, read polling agents, and not to the general public or even media.

Voter Turnout.

Voter Turnout. | Photo Credit: PTI

In the scathing letter it wrote to Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge the poll body said: “It may be noted that Commission is not legally bound to publish any voter turnout data at 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 17 C which is prepared by the presiding officer and signed by the polling agents of candidates present. Copies of Form 17 C 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 the ECI”.

But are all candidates, specially, the Opposition, able to put up polling agents in all booths in their constituencies?

“No”, says Congress Rajya Sabha MP Shakti Singh Gohil who has fought many an election and has been part of his party’s grassroots organisation machinery, specially, in his home state of Gujarat.

One constituency has roughly 2,000-2,200 booths.

A polling agent has to be present at a booth at approximately 5.30 a.m. on the day of voting when a dry run is conducted to check the functioning of EVMs and tally the serial numbers on them. Then actual polling begins at 7 a.m. and continues till approximately 6 p.m. after which the agent is handed over a copy of the Form 17 C (Part 1) which is stamped by the presiding officer and signed by the polling agents of all candidates.

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Thus, a candidate needs at least two agents in each booth — one who will sit through the entire day and one who will relieve him for meals and rest.

A candidate therefore needs to have approximately 6,000 polling agents in each constituency. These agents are each given an allowance of around ₹1,000 to 1,200 each for their meals and transport, concur most ground workers.

“This shows that it is impossible for smaller parties and many independents to have polling agents in all booths,” Mr. Gohil contended to The Hindu.

Agrees Jagdeep Chhokar, founder member of the poll watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms: “I did not see any polling agent in the booth where I voted”.

The ADR has approached the Supreme Court seeking that the Form 17 C be uploaded on the ECI website as soon as it is stamped and signed by the Presiding officer. The Supreme Court on Friday asked the ECI why this could not be done and fixed May 24 as the next date for hearing.

A separate group of civil society members also met the Election Commission and submitted a petition on this demand.

Anjali Bharadwaj, Director of Common Cause who was part of this delegation said there were three factors this time which were raising doubts. “The ECI always discloses absolute numbers of voter turnouts. This time they are only disclosing percentages, usually the turnouts are out within 24 hours of end of polling unlike this time and the increase in voter turnout in the final figures is unusually high”.

“We are just asking that a scanned copy of the Form 17 C be uploaded as soon as it is submitted by the Presiding Officer for the sake of transparency,” she says.

Senior officials in the Election Commission as well as those who have been part of the system, however, dismiss any scope for “tampering” with the data at booth level.

Former Chief Election Commissioner O P Rawat says that the team of polling officers in any booth is randomised and allotted their booths only on the eve of elections. This coupled with the fact that they are drawn from different segments like government schools and public sector banks makes it impossible for any kind of wrong-doing to take place. On the day of counting too the EVMs are first tallied using QR codes and then opened.

Ground workers of Opposition parties however raise questions on the training imparted to these officials as well. “Just like polling agents, these officials too are given a hurried training”, says Rajesh Garg, of the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee who is the head of the party’s training department in the capital.

Thus “Unless the ECI gives out the absolute numbers, then doubts will remain in people’s minds”.

An argument Mr Rawat agrees with. “There is no harm in disclosing the details”.

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