Kasaragod Returning Officer blames BEL engineers for the VVPAT error

On April 17, three VVPAT machines printed one extra slip each with the BJP’s lotus symbol during a mock poll in Kasaragod.
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The Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of Kerala Sanjay Kaul has acknowledged that extra slips were printed from four VVPATS but dismissed the allegation that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) received extra votes in the mock poll conducted in the Kasaragod constituency as "baseless". Returning Officer (RO) Inbasekar Kalimuthu held the Bharat Electronic Limited (BEL) engineer responsible for the lapse. On April 17, VVPAT (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail) machines printed one extra slip each with the BJP’s lotus symbol during a mock poll that was conducted as part of the commissioning of the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM). The VVPAT extra slip had the symbol of the first candidate on the EVM, which in this case was the BJP’s lotus.

The commissioning of EVM refers to the process of checking and preparing the EVMs and VVPATs for voting; this includes checking the machines, loading ballot paper, loading symbols in VVPATs by authorised engineers from the manufacturing companies and casting one vote to each candidate to check if VVPAT is printing the paper slips correctly. VVPAT machines in India are produced by two public sector undertakings (PSUs) – Bharat Electronic Limited (BEL) (under Defence Ministry) and the Electronic Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) (under Department of Atomic Energy).

Sanjay Kaul said a report was sought from the RO and Collector Inbasekar after the complaint was received. He also said that confusion ensued after the allegation that additional VVPAT slips came out during the mock poll. “At the time of printing of test ballot slips after symbol loading, some machines were taken to the commissioning table without having taken the full print of VVPAT test slips. When the machine was restarted at the next commissioning table, the symbol of the first candidate was printed along with a standardisation slip/first diagnostic slip which was supposed to be printed in the previous session.” 

In his report, Inbasekar said that when the Control Unit (CU) was switched on at the commissioning table, four VVPAT machines with the serial numbers VVTED41294, VVTEF82139, VVTEJ14797, VVTED49299, printed an additional slip with ‘not to be counted’ and ‘standardisation done, VVPAT serial no’, along with the first candidate's symbol.

All EVMs consist of three components—the Ballot Unit (BU), the Control Unit (CU) and the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT). In this, the CU records the voters’ votes in its memory; BU has the names/symbols and buttons to cast votes; and VVPATs leave behind a paper trail or slip.

Inbasekar also noted that BEL engineers Pawan Kumar Mishra and Shivam Yadav stated that some machines were taken to the commissioning table without taking the full print of standardisation slips. “When the machine was restarted at the commissioning table, the remaining standardisation slips were printed. That's how the issue was reported at the commissioning table,” the report said.

After an EVM and VVPAT are connected, the CU is switched on and the sensors, buttons and paper are checked in the machines. This is called the standardisation process. During this process, the paper inside the VVPAT also gets adjusted for printing. Once the process is over, the extra paper gets cut and falls inside the box. This is called the standardisation slip.

Illustration of a standardisation slip
Illustration of a standardisation slipceopuducherry

How did the issue get solved?

The RO said that the VVPAT with the serial number VVTED49299 was taken to a mock poll for casting 1,000 votes, the slips were tallied with the machine count, and the agents of parties were convinced. “We have a complete record of events on CCTV camera,” he said.

He added that the BEL engineers loaded the symbols into the symbol loading units (SLU) and brought the machines to commissioning tables. After the symbol loading unit is connected and power is given, the VVPAT prints seven slips to check the parameters.

“Once all seven slips show "Pass", then the Symbol Loading is started by pressing the topmost button in the Symbol Loading Unit by the engineer. Once symbol loading is completed, the same button was pressed to take a printout of the loaded symbols. Once the button is pressed it takes little time to print all the symbols loaded. In case power is cut off during printing, the slip printed till then hangs in the VVPAT and is not cut,” the report explained.

“In the initial phase (first round), the BEL engineers clicked the print button and immediately disconnected without waiting for the full print of the VVPAT slips. This is the root cause of the problems,” the RO alleged.

He added that when the machines were brought to the table, the hanging slip was cut first, giving the impression that the BJP got a vote without pressing the ballot button. “Since the Lotus symbol was the first in the ballot paper, its print came as there was a very short moment after pressing the print button and disconnection. In certain cases, we also observed the second candidate's symbol also coming. But all these slips had in the top ‘not to be counted.”

“The entire episode was avoidable had the BEL engineer followed the protocol of taking the full print of symbols after pressing the print button. Their explanation that some labourers disconnected is not at all acceptable. It is not practically possible for a labourer to grab the symbol loading unit from the learned engineer and disconnect within that short span of time that too after pressing the print button. Moreover, the symbol loading unit and VVPAT are connected through the latch. The latch is very strong. It needs some effort to disconnect. As the BEL engineers are responsible for the symbol loading unit, they shall be personally held responsible for this lapse,” Inbasekar said.

On April 18, the issue was brought to the notice of the Supreme Court when it was hearing a case on verifying all VVPAT slips during elections. Citing a news report by a Kerala-based English website, Bhushan said, “There was a mock poll in Kasaragod, Kerala. Four EVMs and VVPATs recorded one extra vote for the BJP. Manorama carried this report.” The SC directed the ECI to look into the matter, and the ECI informed the court that it was a false news report.

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