SC rejects pleas for 100% verification of VVPAT slips

Rejecting the pleas for paper ballot voting, complete EVM-VVPAT verification, and physical deposit of VVPAT slips, the court observed, “Blindly distrusting a system can lead to unwarranted suspicions.”
Supreme Court
Supreme Court
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The Supreme Court rejected the petitions seeking 100% verification of the data in Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) with Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) slips on Wednesday, April 24. The bench of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta, in their concurring judgement, passed two directions — after the completion of symbol loading process, the Symbol Loading Unit (SLU) should be sealed and stored in a strong room for at least 45 days and the one-time programmed memory in the microcontroller of EVMs should be checked by a team of engineers after the declaration of results, if any candidate makes such a request within seven days of the declaration of results.

SLUs are equipment that upload the symbols and names of candidates who are contesting in a particular constituency onto the VVPAT machine. 

Rejecting the pleas for paper ballot voting, complete EVM-VVPAT verification, and physical deposit of VVPAT slips, the bench observed, “Blindly distrusting a system can lead to unwarranted suspicions. While a balanced perspective is important, blindly doubting a system can breed scepticism and thus meaningful criticism is needed. Be it judiciary, legislature, etc, democracy is all about maintaining harmony and trust among all the pillars. By nurturing a culture of trust and collaboration we can strengthen the voice of our democracy.”

The bench also said that during the time of verification of the EVM’s microcontroller, all parties can be present. The expenses for the verification will have to be borne by the candidate who made the request, unless the EVM is found to be tampered with. The court also asked the Election Commission of India to consider bringing in an electronic machine to count VVPAT slips and have a barcode along with their symbols for each party.

The judgement was passed after the court heard arguments arising from a batch of petitions that sought 100% data verification between EVM and VVPAT. The petitioners, including the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and former IAS officer MG Devasahayam, sought the verification of all VVPAT slips in all constituencies. Currently, only five EVMs are randomly verified in each Assembly segment by the Election Commission of India (ECI).

The VVPAT is a machine that is connected to the EVM. Once a vote is cast in the EVM, the VVPAT leaves a paper trail or slip. The slips are not handed over to the voter but merely shown through a small glass that lights up for around seven seconds. It then falls into a box.

Earlier, on April 24, the bench held a brief hearing and sought clarification on five things: whether the microcontroller was installed in the Controlling Unit (CU) or the VVPAT. A microcontroller or chip is a control device that incorporates essential elements of a computer and is used to control a specific operation in any equipment. In the case of EVM, microcontrollers are used to control the casting and recording of votes.

The court also sought to know if the microcontroller was one-time-programmable. According to the ECI, the machines/microprocessors were only one-time-programmable at the time of manufacturing, which meant that once a programme was written, it could not be altered or tampered with.

The court also wanted to know how many Symbol Loading Units were available; and if the Control Unit was sealed alone or if the VVPAT was kept separately. The other question pertained to the storage period of the data. The court was informed during the hearing that the limitation period for an election petition was 30 days and hence the data was stored for 45 days. But the bench pointed out that the limitation period was 45 days as per the RP Act, and observed that the period for storage had to be correspondingly increased.

During the hearing, the court asked several questions to the ECI to understand how the EVM-VVPAT functioned, including technical details about how the equipment was calibrated and the safety mechanisms in place against tampering. The ECI contended that EVMs could not be tampered with and there was not even a single instance of mismatch found between data stored in the Control Unit of EVM and the VVPAT slips in more than four crore VVPATs that were counted so far.

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The petitioners argued that it was a fundamental right of voters to verify that their vote had been “recorded as cast” and “counted as recorded.” They contended that when the VVPAT slip was displayed for seven seconds to the voter, the aspect of the vote “recorded as cast” was met, but there was no mechanism to fulfil the “counted as recorded” criteria. The bench, during the hearing, orally remarked that manual counting had its faults and pointed out that human intervention might create problems, including bias.

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