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Can Voters Get VVPAT Slips?: SC Asks ECI


New Delhi: The Supreme Court (SC) told the Election Commission of India that there has to be sanctity in the electoral process and has asked the poll body to explain in detail the steps followed to ensure free and fair polls.

The court, which is composed of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta, declared that the voting process must be sacred. He went on to say that no one should be concerned that anything that is expected of them is not being done. The top court is considering petitions asking for a cross-verification of votes cast on electronic voting machines (EVMs) and paper slips produced by the VVPAT system. To answer the queries, poll officials, the poll body’s lawyer, and senior advocate Maninder Singh are present in court.

Advocate Nizam Pasha stated during his appearance in court that voters ought to be permitted to take the VVPAT slip and place it in a ballot box after casting their ballot. Judge Khanna questioned Mr. Pasha about whether such a procedure wouldn’t violate voters’ private rights. He answered, “Voter privacy cannot be used to defeat voter’s rights.”

Subsequently, Advocate Prashant Bhushan stated that the VVPAT machine’s light ought to stay on continuously; currently, it only lasts for seven seconds. He continued by saying that, if the machine’s glass cannot be replaced at this time, at the very least, the light should always be on so that we can see the slide cutting and falling and no one’s privacy will be violated.

Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde, who was representing the petitioners as well, stated that a separate audit was necessary to give the counting procedure more legitimacy. Citing the results of a mock poll in Kerala, where the BJP received more votes than the rest, Mr Bhushan made this statement. Mr Singh was requested to clarify this by the court. Later, the Election Commission declared the report to be wholly untrue.

The poll body stated in its description of the voting procedure that the VVPAT unit prints its paper slip at the instruction of the EVM’s control unit. According to Mr Singh, the voter can see this slip for seven seconds before it drops into a sealed box. It also stated that engineers inspect the equipment before polling. The poll body responded negatively when the court inquired about the presence of software in the VVPAT printer. “There is a 4-megabyte flash memory in every PAT which stores symbols. The returning officer prepares an electronic ballot, which is loaded into the symbol loading unit. It will give a serial number, the name of the candidate and a symbol. Nothing is preloaded. It’s not data, it’s image format.”

When the court asked how many Symbol Loading Units are created for the polling, a poll body official replied, “Normally one in a constituency. It’s in the custody of the Returning Officer till the conclusion of the poll.” The Election Commission responded that no such procedure is presently in existence when the court questioned whether this unit was shut to ensure no manipulation.

Every voting machine goes through the mock poll procedure, the EC informs the court. “Randomly selecting 5% of the computers is permitted for candidates. On poll day, the procedure is repeated. Slips for VVPAT are removed, tallied, and matched. There are various types of paper seals on every machine. The seal number can be verified when the machine for counting arrives, according to an official.

The official responded to the court’s question on how voters can verify if their vote has been cast by saying that the poll body conducts awareness campaigns and provides demonstrations. Additionally, the Election Commission stated that voting machines are distributed at random across constituencies. It is not possible to connect any bogus unit to them. Only sister units will be accepted by them.

The Election Commission informed the judge that the voting machines’ programs are stored in firmware, which is not modifiable. The machines are stored in closed strongrooms with political party leaders present. The machines are returned to strong rooms, which are sealed while candidates are there, according to the Election Commission. The strongrooms are opened in front of the candidates on the day of counting.

Following voting, the court questioned the Election Commission about whether voters would receive a slip. The poll worker retorted that this might jeopardize vote confidentiality and be abused outside of the voting booth. “How it can be used by others we cannot say,” it stated. The electoral board stated that the paper is thin and sticky and is not intended for counting when the court questioned why it takes longer to tally VVPAT paper slips and whether machines might be used for this.

The Supreme Court said there is a trust factor. “There seems to be some disconnect between what you are telling us and what is available in the public domain. That needs to be bridged,” it said. The poll official replied, “We have nothing to hide.” The Election Commission’s counsel said the petitioners’ request for a return to the ballot paper voting system is a “retrograde suggestion”.

The court stated that a polling officer’s wrongdoing must have some sort of consequence. “Any officer not complying with the mandate will be a very serious thing,” it stated. The Representation of Peoples Act has a provision for this, which the Election Commission’s attorney mentioned. The court responded, “Yes, that is a fine of ₹ 500.”

The petitioners were informed by the Supreme Court that they did not need to comprehend the technical aspects after the Election Commission submitted its arguments. The voter must find the ECI’s explanation satisfactory. The Evidence Act further states that official actions are typically taken to be legitimate.

The Court remarked to Mr Bhushan, ‘Now you’re going too far. Not everything is questionable. Please let them know if they did anything well. We are likewise worried, which is why we heard you. Do you need to be told everything in detail?” The petitioner’s lawyer raised the point that the electronic voting machine (EVM) system was no longer used in many developed countries. The response from the Supreme Court was, “Don’t think that foreign countries are more advanced than India.”

The court heard arguments from both sides and then reserved the order. Voters can check if their preferred candidate received the majority of the vote by using the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail, or VVPAT. In the event of a disagreement, the paper slip produced by the VVPAT can be unsealed and stored in a sealed cover. At present, each Assembly segment’s five randomly chosen EVMs’ VVPAT slips are validated. In response to the opposition’s questions and concerns regarding the technology of the electronic voting machines, the petitions request a cross-verification of every vote.

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