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EVMs cannot be Tampered with “At Any Stage:” ECI Tells SC

EVMs cannot be Tampered with “At Any Stage:” ECI Tells SC

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Manas Dasgupta

NEW DELHI, Apr 18: A day before the beginning of the polling for the 2024 Parliamentary elections, the Election Commission of India (ECI) on Thursday categorically assured the Supreme Court that it was impossible to tamper with Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) “at any stage.”

The assurance comes when the country is preparing for the first of the seven-phase polling to elect a new Lok Sabha with 102 constituencies going to the polls on Friday. The court was hearing petitions seeking cross-verification of votes cast on EVMs with paper slips generated through the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system. The court reserved the order after hearing arguments from both sides but only after showing clear disinclination to revert back to the old ballot paper system.

The ECI also informed the court that the reports of four electronic voting machines having erroneously logged votes in favour of the BJP during mock polls held in Kerala had been found to be false.

The attention of the Bench of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta was drawn to the reports by advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for petitioner Association for Democratic Reforms. Mr Bhushan said the four EVMs had reportedly malfunctioned in the mock polls held at Kasaragod district in Kerala on Wednesday. The Bench then asked senior advocate Maninder Singh, appearing for the Election Commission, to “check it up.” When the court re-assembled at 2 p.m., a senior Election Commission official, Nitesh Kumar Vyas, informed the court that the “news reports were false.” “We have verified the allegation from the District Collector and it appears that they are false. We will submit a detailed report to the court,” he submitted.

The assurance that the EVMs could not be tampered at any stage came after the bench commented that there had to ne sanctity in the electoral process and asked the poll body to explain in detail the steps followed to ensure free and fair polls. “This is (an) electoral process. There has to be sanctity. Let nobody have apprehension that something which is expected is not being done,” the bench of Justices Khanna and Datta said.

Replying to a query on whether tampering of EVMs was possible after polling, the ECI said polling officers press the ‘close’ button at the end of polling. “Thereafter, the EVMs do not accept any votes,” a 14-page affidavit said.

The presiding officer records the poll start and close timings in the machine. “After the close of polling, the control unit is switched off and thereafter the ballot unit is disconnected from the control unit and kept separately in their carrying cases and sealed with paper slips on which the polling agents sign,” the ECI said.

Following the Election Commission’s submissions, the Supreme Court told the petitioners, “You need not understand the technical elements. Voter has to be satisfied with the explanation given by ECI. Evidence Act also says official acts are normally presumed to be done validly.”

To Mr Bhushan, the bench said, “Now you’re going too far. Everything can’t be suspected. Please also appreciate if they have done something good. We heard you because we are also concerned. Does everything have to be explained to you?” When a petitioner’s counsel pointed out that many developed countries have left the EVM voting system, the Supreme Court said, “Don’t think that foreign countries are more advanced than India.”

Appearing for one of the petitioners, Advocate Nizam Pasha said a voter should be allowed to take the VVPAT slip after he votes and deposit it in a ballot box. When Justice Khanna asked if such a process won’t affect the voter’s privacy, Mr Pasha replied, “Voter privacy cannot be used to defeat voter’s rights.”

Advocate Prashant Bhushan then said the light on the VVPAT machine should remain on at all times — it now stays on for seven seconds. “One possible solution is if they can’t change glass at this stage, at least the light should remain on at all times, so I can see the slip cutting and falling. No privacy will be compromised.”

Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde, also appearing for petitioners, said there should be a separate audit to add greater credibility to the counting process.

In its explanation of the voting process, the poll body said the EVM’s control unit commands the VVPAT unit to print its paper slip. This slip is visible to the voter for seven seconds before it falls into a sealed box, Mr Singh said. The machines are checked before polling in the presence of engineers, it added.

When the court asked if there was any software in the VVPAT printer, the poll body replied in the negative. “There is a 4 megabyte flash memory in every PAT which stores symbols. The returning officer prepares electronic ballot, which is loaded into the symbol loading unit. It will give a serial number, name of the candidate and 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 custody of Returning Officer till conclusion of poll.” The court then asked if this unit is sealed to ensure no tampering, the Election Commission replied that no such process is currently in place.

The Election Commission told the court that all voting machines pass through the mock poll process. “Candidates are allowed to pick up randomly 5 per cent machines. The process is repeated on poll day. VVPAT slips are taken out, counted and matched. All machines have different kind of paper seals. At the time when a machine arrives for counting, seal number can be checked,” an official said.

When the court asked how a voter can check if his/her vote has been cast, the official replied that the poll body gives demonstrations and runs awareness programmes for this. The Election Commission also said that voting machines get allocated to constituencies randomly. “No spurious unit can be connected (to them). They will only recognise sister units.”

The Election Commission told the court that the voting machines run on firmware and the program cannot be changed. The machines are kept in strong rooms that are locked in presence of representatives of political parties.

The Election Commission said that once polling is over, the machines are taken back to strong rooms, which are sealed in the presence of candidates. On counting day, the strong rooms are opened in the presence of candidates.

The court then asked the Election Commission if it is possible for a voter to get a slip after voting. The poll body replied that this would compromise the secrecy of the vote and may be misused outside the booth. “How it can be used by others we cannot say,” it said.

When the court asked why it takes more time for counting VVPAT paper slips and if machines can be used for this, the election body said the paper is thin and sticky and is not actually meant for counting.

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.”

“Voter trust is to be maintained and protected. How do we ensure integrity of (the) entire mechanism?” the court asked. “We will update FAQs,” the poll body replied.

The Election Commission’s counsel said the petitioners’ request for a return to ballot paper voting system was a “retrograde suggestion.”

The court noted that there must be some punishment for a polling officer’s misconduct. “Any officer not complying with the mandate will be a very serious thing,” it said. When the Election Commission’s counsel cited a provision for this in the Representation of Peoples Act, the court said, “Yes, that is a fine of ₹ 500.”

The petitioners have voiced their apprehensions that EVMs could malfunction or malicious software could be uploaded, favouring the registration of votes in favour of a party, possibly the ruling one and requested the Supreme Court to ensure 100% cross-verification of EVM votes with VVPAT slips.

The ECI pointed out that “At the time of counting of votes, the total votes recorded in a particular control unit is tallied with the account of votes in Form 17C recorded at the conclusion of the polling. If there is any discrepancy, the counting agents of the candidates can request the counting of VVPAT paper slips,” the affidavit explained.

The ECI said there had been 41,629 instances of random verification till date. Over four crore VVPAT paper slips had been matched till date. There had not been a single instance of mismatch, the poll body claimed.

The ECI said it would take a whole hour to count VVPAT of a single polling station. “On an average, 1,000 VVPAT slips are required to be counted per polling station… The small size and special nature of the paper makes the slips sticky. Manual counting of VVPAT slips is cumbersome at every step. The process cannot be expedited or hurried,” the ECI said.

The manual counting of VVPAT slips involved manifold steps, including the verification of the unique ID of the VVPAT, opening the VVPAT dropbox, taking out the slips, counting them, matching the slips with the total number of votes polled, segregation of VVPAT slips candidate-wise, making candidate-wise bundles of 25 slips, and counting the bundles and leftover slips.

The ECI’s affidavit also provided a human perspective on why VVPAT slips’ counting cannot be hurried up. “The overall environment in a counting centre is charged up and the counting personnel are under tremendous mental pressure. This is also a factor that affects the speed of counting of VVPAT slips,” the ECI said.

There were also instances of recounting and re-verification of VVPAT slips till candidate-wise tallying was done. This would again consume time, the affidavit noted. The ECI assured that there could not be any “mismatch” between votes polled and votes counted.

“Votes are registered in the control unit only after receiving the confirmation from VVPAT about the print and fall of the VVPAT paper slips… There is a ‘fall sensor’ in the VVPAT. In case the slip is not cut or does not fall into the ballot box, the VVPAT shows ‘fall error’ and no vote is recorded in the control unit,” the poll body explained.

The ECI said that both electors and machines had increased from 2019 to 2024. Polling stations had gone up from 10.35 lakh in 2019 to 10.48 lakh in 2024.

Similarly, the votes polled had increased from about 61.4 crore in 2019 to 97 crore registered voters in 2024. The ECI explained that EVMs were constituted of ballot units, control units and VVPATs. All three units were sealed in the presence of candidates or their agents and stored in strong rooms after elections for a period of 45 days, the time for filing election petitions.

The ECI said there were 23.3 lakh ballot units in 2019 and their number was 21.6 lakh in 2024. The number of control units were 16.35 lakh in 2019 and 16.8 lakh in 2024. The VVPATs had increased marginally from 17.4 lakh in 2019 to 17.7 lakh in 2024.



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