Supreme Court Asks If Voters Can Get VVPAT Slip, Poll Body Flags Big Risk

The court is hearing petitions seeking cross-verification of votes cast on Electronic Voting Machines with paper slips generated through the VVPAT system.

The Supreme Court is hearing the case even as the country gears up for the first phase of Lok Sabha polls

New Delhi:

There has to be sanctity in the electoral process, the Supreme Court told the Election Commission of India today, asking 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 Justice Sanjiv Khanna and Justice Dipankar Datta said.

The court is hearing petitions seeking cross-verification of votes cast on Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) with paper slips generated through the VVPAT system. Senior Advocate Maninder Singh, the poll body's counsel, and poll officials are in court to respond to the questions.

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 that 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.

Mr Bhushan cited a report on mock poll results in Kerala, where extra votes were recorded for the BJP. The court asked Mr Singh to explain this. The Election Commission later said that the report is completely false. 

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 strongrooms 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 strongrooms 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 is 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 Rs 500."

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."

The court reserved the order after hearing arguments from both sides. 

What Is VVPAT and What Is The Case

The VVPAT -- Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail -- enables a voter to see if the vote was cast properly and went to the candidate he/she supports. The VVPAT generates a paper slip that is kept in a sealed cover and can be opened if there is a dispute. Currently, VVPAT slips of five randomly selected EVMs in every Assembly segment are verified. Amid the Opposition's questions and apprehensions regarding the EVM system of voting, the petitions call for cross-verification of every vote.