Source: 
The Print
https://theprint.in/elections/why-cant-it-be-made-public-sc-tells-ec-to-respond-to-plea-for-release-of-data-on-votes-polled/2090377/
Author: 
BHADRA SINHA
Date: 
17.05.2024
City: 
New Delhi

SC hearing was on a plea seeking direction to the EC to upload voter turnout data within 48 hours of polling rather than later, claiming this would allay ‘public suspicion’.

The Supreme Court Friday asked the Election Commission of India (ECI) to respond to an application demanding the disclosure of the absolute number of votes polled in the ongoing elections.

A bench led by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud held a special hearing of the joint application filed by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) and Common Cause. Their application argues that to maintain voter confidence in the democratic process, it’s necessary for the Election Commission to disclose on its website the number of votes polled within 48 hours of polling.

The application seeks a direction to the ECI to upload scanned copies of Form 17C, which records the number of votes polled in a booth, soon after the elections.

It also pointed out that the voter turn-out data for the first two phases of the ongoing 2024 Lok Sabha elections was published by the ECI on 30 April, “after 11 days of the first phase of polling held on 19th April and 4 days after second phase of polling held on 26th April.”

Moreover, the final data released by the ECI in its press release on 30 April showed a sharp increase of about 5-6 percent compared to the initial data on votes polled, released on the two days of polling, the application said.

This “inordinate delay” in releasing the absolute number of polled votes, along with the discrepancy in the data made public on 30 April, has led to concerns among the electorate about the integrity of elections, which must be addressed and put to rest, stated the ADR’s application.

Debate in court

At the outset, the bench questioned whether it would be appropriate to direct the ECI to declare the data on the internet in the midst of the elections. “What is the point really?” it asked. The bench then queried ECI counsel Amit Sharma about why the poll body was unable to make the information public.

Meanwhile, Sharma opposed the application, stating that Form 17C data is provided to every candidate, and if any candidate has objections, they can raise them in an election petition.

Sharma also defended the mismatch between the initially declared data and the later released data, explaining that real-time voter turnout figures are provided by the Voter Turnout App, which is tentative and updated on a relative basis. Thus, he argued, any mismatch with the Form 17C data, which is actual, is not material.

However, when the applicants’ counsel, Prashant Bhushan, argued that this mismatch raised doubts over the efficacy of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), the CJI asked Sharma why the same data couldn’t be uploaded on the Election Commission’s website if the returning officer has data of the entire constituency by the end of the day.

Later, when the bench re-assembled at 6 pm, senior advocate Maninder Singh appeared for the ECI and accused ADR of discrediting the poll panel with falsehoods.

Additionally, Singh said that four phases of the Lok Sabha elections were already over and that the Supreme Court, in its judgment delivered on 26 April had addressed the issue around Form 17C.

Bhushan opposed Singh on this point, stating that the specific issue raised in the application was never deliberated then. The 26 April judgment in question rejected petitions that called for a comprehensive check of votes cast using Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) against the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail.

The bench, thereafter, gave the ECI a week to file its response to the application and scheduled 24 May to hear the matter again. Since it would get listed during the summer break, the application would be considered by a different bench.

‘Public suspicion’

According to the application, the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, mandates that the presiding officer prepares an account of votes recorded in Part I of Form 17C, and the returning officer records the number of votes in favour of each candidate in Part II of the form.

“It is submitted that the inordinate delay in the release of final voter turnout data, coupled with the unusually high revision (of over 5%) in the ECI’s press note of April 30, 2024, and the absence of disaggregated constituency and polling station figures in absolute numbers, has raised concerns and public suspicion regarding the  correctness of the said data,” the application submitted.

“(W)ithout the absolute number of voter turnout data, the general  public cannot compare the number of votes polled with the number  of votes counted as announced in the results and thus, discrepancies,  if any, in the two sets of data (no. of votes polled at polling  booths and no. of votes counted by EVM) can only be assessed when absolute numbers, and not merely percentages, for each Constituency are released by the ECI,” added the application.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections, the ECI had released total votes polled data of that year by comparing it with the 2014 data. This provided voters with compiled data showing the number as well as the increase and decrease in the voting percentage, noted the application in support of its plea.

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