Conducting elections in the world’s largest democracy is a mammoth task. So, what does it exactly take for the Election Commission of India to run the show? 

Lok Sabha Polls: How EC Hosts World’s Largest Display of Democracy

More than 10 million election officials. One million polling stations across the length and breadth of India. Around 900 million voters to exercise their franchise.

Conducting elections in the world’s largest democracy is a mammoth task.

No wonder then that SY Quraishi, former chief election commissioner of India (CEC), once described India’s elections as “not only the biggest elections in the world, but also the largest human management project.”

This Lok Sabha elections, the number of voters have increased by 84.3 million since the 2014 elections, the Election Commission of India (ECI) said on Sunday, 10 March, announcing the poll schedule.

As the ECI gears up to conduct the much-anticipated electoral battle, here’s everything you need to know about the body that runs the show.

The Election Commission of India Over the Years

An autonomous constitutional body, the ECI was set up on 25 January 1950, with Sukumar Sen as its first CEC. Under Article 324 of the Constitution, the body “supervises, directs and controls” the Lok Sabha elections and the Assembly polls of each state.

The CEC is appointed by the president for a tenure of six years, or up to the age of 65 years.

The ECI is also responsible for holding and executing elections to elect the president and the vice president.

At the time of its formation, the ECI was a single-member body with the CEC as the chairperson. In 1989, two additional election commissioners were appointed, making the ECI a three-member body. Though discontinued briefly, the ECI today remains a multi-member body with decisions made by majority vote.

Commemorating the formation date of the ECI, each year on 25 January, India marks the day as National Voters' Day. This was initiated by former President Pratibha Patil in 2011.

Inclusion and Exclusion – the ECI's Key Challenges

Besides holding free and fair elections, a crucial role of the ECI is to ensure maximum voter inclusion and participation.

The ECI played a prominent role on persuading and recognising female voters to partake during the first Lok Sabha elections 1952 – a period when many women did not recognise themselves by their names but as “wife of ..” or “daughter of ..” the men in their families.

But over the years, the commission has been tasked with tackling new challenges of the inclusion of third gender and tribal voters in the electoral roll. Other challenges such as removal of names of deceased voters and “imposters” are faced by them each year.

For instance, prior to Telangana Assembly elections in 2018, the state election commission faced severe backlash after numerous voters were unable to find their names on the electoral rolls, as 22 lakh voter names had been deleted from the list.

Similarly, a Livemint report states that data from the 2018 electoral rolls suggests that there could be 52 million missing voters on the electoral rolls.

Therefore, as opposed to an unscrupulous inclusion of voters in the electoral roll in the last few decades, the ECI now also faces challenges to thoroughly examine electors in order to avoid double counting or worse, exclusion.

The ECI in a notification had stated that more than 10 million election officials will be deployed to to ease the election process.

What Are the Other Crucial Tasks the ECI Oversees?

The ECI is responsible for training booth level officers, who work at district levels for the updation of electoral rolls. Their lack of training can, therefore, cause serious difficulties.

Other crucial tasks that the commission oversees are:

  • Declaration of poll results
  • Location of the polling and counting stations
  • Security arrangements in and around of polling stations
  • Implementing and overseeing Model Code of Conduct
  • Maintenance and security of EVMs
  • Recognises the national, state and regional status of political parties

Moreover, the ECI can send proposals to the government, recommended to ensure fairer elections. For instance, the law ministry after a proposal sent by the ECI in February 2019, made it mandatory for candidates contesting in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections to disclose their income tax returns of the last five years and details of offshore assets, The Indian Express reported.

Changes were introduced in Form 26, submitted by a candidate along with the nomination papers, that furnishes information such as their assets, educational qualification and criminal antecedents.

As per the ECI guidelines, it “has the power to disqualify a candidate who has failed to lodge an account of his/her election expenses within the time as prescribed by law.”

Who Heads the ECI and Can They Be Removed?

Although the CEC bears the status of the chairperson, the distribution of power between the CEC and the other two commissioners are mostly the same.

However, the procedure to remove the CEC and election commissioners are different.

The CEC can be removed from office only through impeachment by the Parliament, while the president can remove the election commissioners based on the recommendation of the chairperson.

In 2009, the then CEC N Gopalaswami had recommended the removal of fellow commissioner Navin Chawla over allegation of "partisanship" towards the ruling UPA government. This was quashed by then President Pratibha Patil on the recommendation of the government, and was again dismissed by the Supreme Court after a PIL sought for the same. Chawla, the same year, was appointed as the CEC, and had pushed for a constitutional amendment in the procedure to remove an election commissioner.

Even incumbent CEC Sunil Arora has pitched for equal constitutional protection to the election commissioners with regard to their removal.

Similar to the ECI, State Election Commissions (SEC) operate at the regional level.

Budget Allocation & Pitching for Simultaneous Elections

As per the ECI guidelines, "major expenditure on the actual conduct of elections is reflected in the budgets of the concerned constituent units of the Union, states and union territories."

What this essentially means is that the Centre bears the total cost of parliamentary polls, while the cost of conducting Assembly polls is borne by the states. These expenses are reflected in the Union and the state Budgets, respectively.

Over the years, several political parties have pitched for simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly polls to reduce expenses.

According to a report by Factly.in, the expenditure for conducting the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was Rs 3,870 crore – almost three times more than the expenditure incurred in the 2009 polls.
Other polls such as 2018 Karnataka Assembly elections tentatively cost over 500 crore, double of what was spent during the last elections, The Times of India reported.

Very recently, in August 2018, the then CEC OP Rawat ruled out the possibility of holding simultaneous elections “anytime soon”.

EVM Tampering & Other Controversies

One of the most debated issues concerning the ECI since the 2014 general elections has been the allegations regarding tampering of EVMs during elections.

Several parties including the Aam Aadmi Party have criticised the functioning of EVMs, alleging its susceptibility to get hacked and demanded returning to the old ballot-paper system of voting.

The ECI has countered these claims, and categorically denied any hacking of the machines. In 2017, the ECI even issued an open challenge to political parties in order to prove that EVMs could not be tampered with.

More recently, the Opposition has accused the commission of delay in announcing poll dates.

For instance, Congress leader Ahmed Patel alleged that this was deliberately done to ensure that the government can announce welfare schemes close to the election – something that won’t be possible once the Model Code of Conduct comes into effect.

An ECI official clarified to NDTV, saying, “In 2014, the last date of delivering results for General Elections was May 31, and the poll schedule was announced on March 5. This time, the last date to deliver results for General Elections is June 3, so we have enough time and there is no delay.”