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The court said that the electoral process in India is a ‘humongous task’ and rejected suggestions to order a return to ballot papers.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday dismissed criticism of voting through the Electronic Voting Machines and said that attempts should not be made to “bring down the system”, PTI reported.

A bench comprising Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta also said that the electoral process in India was a “humongous task” and rejected suggestions by petitioners to order a return to ballot papers in polling.

The bench recalled how polling booths were allegedly captured when ballot papers were in use to manipulate the election results. “We have seen what used to happen earlier,” Khanna said.

The court was hearing a batch of pleas seeking tallying of all Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail slips to verify votes cast through the Electronic Voting Machines.

Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail is a machine that prints a paper slip of the candidate’s name, serial number and the party’s symbol after a voter has cast their vote. To avoid election fraud, it displays the paper slip for seven seconds for the voters to check if their vote has been correctly cast for their chosen candidate.

The paper slip then drops down to a locked compartment that only the polling agent can access. The slips are not handed over to the voters. The collected slips can be used to audit voting data stored electronically.

After a 2019 Supreme Court order, Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail slips from only five randomly selected polling stations in each Assembly segment are verified.

On Tuesday, advocate Prashant Bhushan, representing the nongovernmental organisation Association for Democratic Reforms, said that most European countries had gone back to ballot papersThe Indian Express reported.

In response, Datta said that conducting elections in India was a humongous task that would not be possible for any European country to conduct. “We have to repose some trust and confidence in somebody,” he said. “Of course, they are accountable… But don’t try to bring down the system like this.”

Bhushan said that the petitioners were not claiming that the Electronic Voting Machines were being manipulated. “What we are saying is that EVMs [Electronic Voting Machines] can be manipulated because both EVM as well as the VVPAT [Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail slips] have a programmable chip.”

He also told the bench that the Election Commission had said that it could not share the source code of the Electronic Voting Machines chips as it was the intellectual property of the manufacturer.

The advocate claimed that the machines were assembled by two Public Sector Undertakings – the Electronics Corporation of India Limited and the Bharat Electronics Limited – that had several members of the Bharatiya Janata Party as its directors.

Bhushan suggested allowing voters to physically take Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail slips and deposit it in the ballot box that would assure them that their vote had been recorded correctly.

He also sought reversal of the Commission’s decision to replace the transparent glass on VVPAT machines with an opaque glass through which a voter can see the slip only when the light is on for seven seconds, PTI reported.

The petitioners also noted that the poll panel had earlier said it would take 12 days to declare the election results if all Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail slips had to be counted.

Senior Advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan, representing another petitioner, submitted a news report citing Election Commission’s data from the 2019 Lok Sabha polls that highlighted a mismatch in the number of votes cast on the Electronic Voting Machines and the number of votes counted in some constituencies.

Sankaranarayanan said that “serious discrepancies” were seen in several constituencies which went to polls in the first phase of the election.

The bench, in response, said that such discrepancies might arise occasionally because the button would not have been pressed immediately. “Each candidate will be given that data,” Khanna said. “The candidates would have immediately challenged it.”

Sankaranarayanan also cited a report of the Committee on Government Assurances from July. He noted that the parliamentary panel has said that “the Union government is yet to provide a reply for the last four years after it promised Parliament that it would obtain information from the Election Commission about possible discrepancies between the EVMs and VVPAT rally during the 2019 elections”.

The bench, in response, said it would ask the Election Commission about it.

The hearing of the matter will resume on Thursday.

The general elections will be held in seven phases between April 19 and June 1. The counting of votes will take place on June 4.

Demand for tallying all VVPAT slips

In January, the Congress alleged that the Election Commission had failed to provide any substantive response to the INDIA bloc’s “genuine concerns” about the Electronic Voting Machines.

A month earlier, former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi said that 100% of the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail slips should be verified as part of the vote counting process.

“[Counting all VVPAT slips] won’t take more than a day,” Quraishi had said in a social media post. “But [this will] restore people’s confidence. That’s essential for credible elections.”

The former election commissioner was responding to a question by a social media user who asked if it would be viable for voters to deposit their Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail slips into ballot boxes at the time of voting, and for these slips to be counted later to corroborate the data from the Electronic Voting Machines.

On December 3, Quraishi had written in The Telegraph that there is a “need for serious affirmative action” by the polling body to assuage doubts that have been raised about India’s electronic voting system.

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