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Are Indian Elections Accessible To Persons With Disabilities?

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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.

Representational Image

The current system of registering votes is not fully accommodating to persons with disabilities.

The aforesaid 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 4th July 2018 in the National Consultation on Accessible Elections, the Election Commission of India 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 recognizes the use of accessible technological tools for facilitating persons with disabilities of different categories to cast their votes.

Article 15 of the Indian constitution also prohibits discrimination by the state against any citizen (including disabled) on the ground of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. Notwithstanding, Persons with disabilities have been fighting for a long for their right to vote on a par with other citizens.

Issues With Assisted Voting

As per Census 2011, in India, there are about 2.68 crore disabled persons, out of which about 50 lakh persons have a disability in seeing. Voters with disabilities in seeing are still able to cast a vote at an election with the assistance of a companion. An assisted vote, whilst not a secret and independent vote, still allows voters with disabilities in seeing 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 said voter.

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 with the candidates’ vote button, digits 1 to 16 are embossed in Braille signage for the guidance of voters with disability in seeing. However, a voter with a 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 favor of the candidate to whom it was intended or not. Moreover, not every visually impaired person understands Braille.

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

Image Text To Speech Conversion (ITTS) Devices

The basic idea of the proposed independent 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 through the headphones.

The ITTS device consists of 4 main components: camera, programmable system (optical character recognition software and text-to-speech engine), headphones, and battery. However, the optical character recognition software can not recognize and convert the image of the symbol of the candidate printed on the paper slip in VVPAT into text. Hence, the name of the symbol needs to be loaded in the VVPAT machine along with the serial number, name of the candidate, and image of the symbol.

The ITTS device shall be fixed inside the VVPAT machine in such a way that the camera remains pointed towards the area where the slip generated by the printer in VVPAT is displayed for 7 seconds. 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 slip is printed in the VVPAT containing the serial number, name of the candidate, and image, and name of the symbol of the candidate and remains exposed through a transparent window for 7 seconds. The ITTS device captures the image of the slip using the camera. The extraction of the text in the image is done using optical character recognition software and the process of converting text to speech is done by a text-to-speech engine.

The audio output then listens through the headphones. It states the serial number, name of the candidate, and 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 image, text, and audio files created in the ITTS device during this process get eliminated automatically creating fresh space for new files.

The proposed system is independent and not vulnerable to manipulation. The manufacturers of EVMs (Bharat Electronics Ltd. and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd.) are capable of making inexpensive but 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. The confidence of the voters with disabilities in seeing in the EVMs can be achieved only if they are given the facility to verify and confirm 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, to help voters with disabilities in seeing to verify their cast votes, the Election Commission of India should make modifications in the EVMs to attach the image text to speech conversion (ITTS) device to the VVPATs.

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