According to the 2011 Census, there are about 2.68 crore disabled persons in India, of whom about 50 lakh persons have disability in seeing. But their votes carry just as much importance as any other. Article 15 of our Constitution prohibits discrimination by the State against any citizen (including people with disabilities). Yet, persons with disabilities have been fighting for long for their right to vote on a par with other citizens.
In my capacity as a concerned and spirited citizen of this country, I wrote to the Election Commission (EC) and Ministry of Law and Justice with recommendations to make the election process foolproof for visually challenged voters by introducing an image text to speech (ITTS) conversion system in Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) based on extensive academic research. This article is based on the letter I wrote.
Existing framework for people with disabilities
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, an international human rights treaty 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 4 July 2018, in the National Consultation on Accessible Elections, the EC said it was committed to building an equal-access framework for persons with disabilities supported by the fundamentals of responsiveness, respect and dignity to enhance elector confidence; 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.
Voters with disability in seeing usually cast a vote at an election with the assistance of a companion. An assisted vote, while not a secret and independent vote, 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 their vote for the candidate picked by the voter with disability in seeing.
For the convenience of voters with disabilities 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 a disability in seeing can press a button but cannot ascertain the actual vote. The voter is not sure whether their vote is recorded or not, and if recorded, whether it is recorded in favour of the candidate for whom it was intended. Moreover, not every person with disability in seeing understands Braille.
Even in the case of a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), an independent system attached to the EVMs that allows voters to verify that their votes are cast as intended, does not take people with disabilities in seeing into consideration. There is a need to provide a system through which voters with disabilities in seeing can get immediate audio verification of their cast votes.
How an ITTS device can help
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 cannot 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 can 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 the machine come within the field of view of its camera lens. Externally, it requires a set of headphones with volume controls.
Upon entering the booth, the voter must put on headphones. When a vote is cast, a paper slip printed in the VVPAT containing the serial number, the name of the candidate and the image and name of the symbol of the candidate should remain exposed through the transparent window for seven seconds. The ITTS device will capture the image of the paper slip using its camera. The extraction of the text from the image will be done by optical character recognition software and the process of converting text to speech will happen through the text-to-speech engine. The audio output will then be heard in the headphones. It will state the serial number, the name of the candidate and the name of the symbol of the candidate. The voter listening through their headphones can instantly verify that their vote is cast as intended. Thereafter, the temporary files created on the ITTS device during this process can be eliminated automatically, creating space for new files.
It should be noted that the proposed stand-alone system is not vulnerable to manipulation. The manufacturers of EVMs (Bharat Electronics Ltd. and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd.) can make inexpensive and efficient ITTS devices using current technologies.
Faith in the electoral system
Voting is an act of expression that has immense importance in a democratic system. With the intent of transparency in the electoral system and to restore the confidence of voters with disabilities 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.
Although the ECI and the law ministry are yet to reply to my letter, I hope that we do the right thing to empower the voters with disability in seeing to verify their votes and to protect their right to vote on a par with other citizens.
The author is a Mumbai-based Ayurvedic physician and researcher who has been working on good governance and policy framing for the last six years. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)