A Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi has issued a notice to the Election Commission of India asking for its response on a plea moved by twenty one opposition parties seeking counting of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) slips of 50 per cent of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in each constituency before the Lok Sabha results are declared. The petitioning parties, six national and fifteen regional, claim to represent about 70 per cent of the electorate. The petitioners want the Supreme Court to set aside the decision the Election Commission of India to make random verification of votes polled in one of the assembly constituencies of each parliamentary constituency. According to the petitioners, random verification of one assembly constituency was “completely ineffective” and “merely ornamental” in nature and translated to an actual check on less than 0.44 per cent of EVMs in the country. The Supreme Court would take up the matter for further hearing on March 25 and pass orders on the merit of the case after hearing the arguments of the petitioners and the ECI.
EVMs were first used in a few constituencies in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh (5), Rajasthan (5) and Delhi (6). Their mass use was made in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, and since then they have been used in every assembly and parliamentary election. There have been complaints of tampering of EVMs to favour the ruling party right from their first use. Despite frequent complaints, no party or individual has come forward with any concrete evidence of EVM tampering. The ECI has continued to hold that the technical and administrative safeguards instituted by the commission and EVM manufacturers have held steady since the introduction of the EVM. However, to allay fears of political parties and drive confidence among voters, the ECI introduced VVPAT, an additional machine besides the EVM that allows for a paper trail for voting and later verification of the electronically registered mandate. Despite additional safeguards the misgivings about EVMs continue and the latest petition before the Supreme Court is borne out of such misgivings. Though ECI safeguards about trustworthiness of EVMs are robust, VVPAT recounts in 50 per cent of booths could eliminate any doubt of manipulations or possible “insider fraud” by venal officials or a collusive technology provider.
The demand for seeking counting of VVPAT slips of 50 per cent of EVMs in each Lok Sabha constituency is a significant climbdown by the opposition parties that have been demanding that the ECI reintroduce paper ballots. It should not be forgotten that paper ballots were done away with for reasons of rigging, ballot snatching and other malpractices. Though the demand for count of half of all the slips appears to be an over-reaction, there appears to be some merit in questioning whether counting of VVPAT slips in one booth per constituency was a statistically significant sample to eliminate doubts of rigging. Counting of 50 per cent votes recorded in VVPAT boxes could delay the announcement of results, especially in parliamentary constituencies, given the large number of voters. Perhaps the ECI and the opposition parties can come to an agreement over an optimal quantum of votes to be cross-verified through VVPAT in a parliamentary or Assembly constituency. However, as the opposition parties have raised the issue, it might cause doubts in the minds of the voters; so, for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections at least, the ECI should accept their demand for counting of votes recorded in 50 per cent VVPAT boxes in order to prove beyond doubt that EVMs are tamper-proof.
As public confidence in the authenticity of EVMs would depend on the flawless matching of votes recorded in EVMs and VVPAT boxes, the ECI has to ensure that both the EVM and VVPAT machines were foolproof and free from glitches. It might be recalled that scores of VVPAT machines had developed problems during the parliamentary by-elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and Assembly elections in Karnataka in 2018, forcing election authorities to replace the machines. Keeping past failures in view, the ECI needs to take guarantees from VVPAT manufacturer that there would be no glitches in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Though the ECI claims hardware changes have eliminated room for glitches, they have to be doubly sure. Deployment of faultless VVPAT machines would take care of the misgivings among opposition parties. It would also help faster declaration of results as every political party would begin to trust the machine. The Supreme Court needs to deliver an order that leaves no room for doubt or fear among the opposition parties and the voters at large about any technological pre-setting of voting machines.