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Kerala Assembly Elections : Congress Candidates Move High Court Seeking Safe Custody Of Postal Ballots

Lydia Suzanne Thomas
31 March 2021 2:36 AM GMT
Kerala Assembly Elections : Congress Candidates Move High Court Seeking Safe Custody Of Postal Ballots
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Alleging widespread irregularities in the handling of postal ballots, three candidates of the Indian National Congress in the upcoming assembly elections have filed a writ petition in the Kerala High Court.The petition filed by K Muraleedaharan, Anad Jayan and Deepak Joy, candidates of Nemom, Vamanapuram and Vypeen constituencies respectively, are seeking a direction that the postal...

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Alleging widespread irregularities in the handling of postal ballots, three candidates of the Indian National Congress in the upcoming assembly elections have filed a writ petition in the Kerala High Court.

The petition filed by K Muraleedaharan, Anad Jayan and Deepak Joy, candidates of Nemom, Vamanapuram and Vypeen constituencies respectively, are seeking a direction that the postal ballots should be kept in the same place where the VVPAT (voter verifiable paper audit trail) machines are kept, with the same level of security.

The petitioners allege that the present system in place to collect and preserve postal ballots is compromised.

In their petition, the politicians allege that the officers of the Election Commission deputed to aid and conduct the election process are state government employees bearing allegiance to the government in power.

Pointing out that most persons were divided on political lines in the state of Kerala, it is contended,

"The employees under the control of the Election Commission, the 2nd respondent, in connection with the elections including for the preparation of voters list are employees deployed from identified service organizations having their allegiance to the Government in office. People who are identified as Assistant Returning Officer and Returning Officer, except few, who are in All India service, are office bearers of service organisations of gazetted employees who owe their allegiance to the party in power."

Stating that these claims were not wild or without foundation, the petitioners cite instances by which the postal ballot system in use for the upcoming elections may be compromised.

It is alleged that despite a foolproof system on paper to ensure the integrity of votes, in reality, party workers reach the residence of absentee voters in advance, based on information received from the election officials.

The officers or authorized representatives of the petitioners (who are also contesting the upcoming elections) receive no information about this despite candidates/authorized officers being allowed to be informed or watch the process of vote collection.

Apart from this, it is the petitioners' case that polling officials who should have been provided with adequate number of postal ballot papers, envelopes, pen, inkpad, and glue to seal the envelopes did not carry the same when visiting residences pf absentee voters. Neither were canvass bags to carry polled ballots, counter foils and other essential stationaries carried in many cases, it is stated.

The petitioners submit that  "some of the lady polling officers are collecting it in their vanity bag instead of the canvass bag as provided in clause 5.14 (of the Standard Operating procedure for Collection of Postal Ballots)".

The petitioners state that their representatives who travelled with Returning Officers informed them that the polled ballot papers are kept "without any safety method or strong room facility and they are at the disposal of the Returning Officers, whose integrity cannot be accepted unconditionally."

The petitioners argue,

"The votes so collected by the process envisaged will have decisive impact in the ultimate outcome of the election. Around 4000 votes are in the custody of the Returning Officers and having experienced the unethical standard of many of the Returning Officers, it is submitted that unless the votes are kept in the strong room, the electoral mandate will be manipulated on account of the mischievous actions of the Returning Officers assisted by identified service organisation workers."

The petition filed through the office of Senior Advocate George Poonthottam points out that the postal ballot system is used generally only by Government employees on election duty away from their constituencies and never exceeded 1000 in a constituency. As a result of the pandemic, the upcoming elections extended the postal ballot facility to persons above the age of 80.

Asserting that around 7000-8000 persons in each constituency are eligible to avail the facility, it is stated that persons who have actually availed the facility are around 4000 in most of the constituencies.

Apart from these numbers, the number of persons who cast vote via postal ballot deployed for essential service such as police, fire force, number around 600.

Thus, the petitioners aver that persons voting via postal ballot in light of COVID-19 restrictions will be decisive in determining "the fate of the election" in constituencies, where the "margin of victory is less than 5000."

Underscoring that their petition is filed in public interest on behalf of voters who are unable to individually approach the Court, the petitioners pray for the Court to:

● Directing the Election Commission of India and the Chief Electoral Officer to keep all the ballots in the place where VVPAT machines are secured, to ensure the safety of votes;

● Declare that it is the duty of the Election Commission to preserve the polled ballot papers without giving any room for tampering after the same having exercised by the voters.

● Grant other reliefs as the Court deems fit

As interim relief, the petitioners urge that the ballots polled are secured for safekeeping in the place where the VVPAT machines are in safekeeping, until the writ petition is disposed.

A division bench of Chief Justice S Manikumar and Justice Shaji P Chaly will consider the petition today.

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