Indian Express
Damini Nath
New Delhi

As of now, the ECI mandates the counting of all VVPAT slips in five randomly selected polling stations per Assembly constituency or segment. With just months to go to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, a new petition has re-ignited the issue – what is the real purpose of VVPATs?

A petition from the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) has sought 100% counting of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) slips. In response, the Election Commission (EC) told the Supreme Court on September 4 that if it were to count 100% of the slips in every election, then the country would go back to the time of manual polling. This, it said, would be tantamount to the re-introduction of paper ballots by indirect means.

As of now, the ECI mandates the counting of all VVPAT slips in five randomly selected polling stations per Assembly constituency or segment. With just months to go to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the petition filed by the ADR and the EC’s 962-page affidavit in response has once again re-ignited the issue  what is the real purpose of VVPATs?

What are VVPATs?

When a vote is cast, the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machine, which is attached to the ballot unit (BU) of the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM), prints out a slip of paper with the voter’s choice indicated on it. Though it remains behind glass, the printed slip is visible for seven seconds so the voter can see that the vote has been recorded correctly, before it falls into a box underneath.

The idea of the VVPAT machine first emerged in 2010, when the EC held a meeting with political parties to discuss the EVM and ways to make the polling process more transparent. After discussing the idea, the ECI referred the matter to its Technical Expert Committee.

A prototype was prepared by the two PSUs that manufacture EVMs  Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and Electronics Corporation of India (ECIL). Then field trials were held in Ladakh, Thiruvananthapuram, Cherrapunjee, East Delhi and Jaisalmer in July 2011, the ECI affidavit says. Finally, after fine-tuning the design, holding more trials and taking feedback from political parties, the expert committee approved the design of the VVPAT in February 2013.

The Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961 were amended in 2013 to allow for a printer with a drop box to be attached to the EVM. The VVPAT was used for the first time in all 21 polling stations of the Noksen Assembly constituency of Nagaland in 2013, after which the EC decided to introduce VVPATs in a phased manner. From June 2017, 100% of VVPATs began to be used in polls, and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections became the first general election to have 100% of EVMs being attached to VVPATs.

What percentage of VVPAT slips are counted as of now?

When it came time to decide what percentage of the VVPAT slips should actually be counted to verify the accuracy, the EC asked the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in 2018 to come up with a “mathematically sound, statistically robust and practically cogent sample size for the internal audit of the VVPAT slips with electronic result of EVMs”, the ECI affidavit said.

The EC also met political parties to discuss the issue, where demands for 10% to 100% counting emerged. In February 2018, the EC mandated the counting of VVPAT slips of one randomly selected polling station per Assembly constituency. This was increased to five polling stations per Assembly seat, following a Supreme Court judgment in April 2019 on a petition filed by TDP leader Chandrababu Naidu.

Meanwhile, the ISI report to the EC in March 2019 recommended that a random sample of 479 EVMs be selected for counting of VVPAT slips. “If for each of the selected machines, the EVM count matches with the VVPAT count, then it can be concluded with an extremely high statistical confidence (more than 99.993665752% confidence) that the proportion of defective EVMs is less than 2%,” the ISI report said.

What is the present petition demanding?

The election watchdog group ADR filed a writ petition on March 13 this year. It said that while the requirement of the voter verifying that the vote is recorded as cast is “somewhat met” by the slip being displayed for seven seconds, there is no procedure for the voter to ensure that the vote is “counted as recorded”.

This, ADR argued, goes against the Supreme Court’s 2013 judgment in Subramanian Swamy vs. Election Commission of India, where it held the VVPAT an “indispensable requirement of free and fair elections”. ADR said the court’s April 2019 judgment, in which the VVPAT counting was increased from one to five polling stations per Assembly seat, was due to the fact the 2019 Lok Sabha elections were near and the EC would face difficulties if it were increased to 50% of all VVPATs as Naidu’s petition had asked for.

The ADR petition asked the court to declare that it was every voter’s fundamental right to verify the vote has been “recorded as cast”, that is 100% counting of VVPAT slips.

What has the EC said?

In its counter affidavit, the EC said verification of VVPATs of five randomly selected polling stations per Assembly seat, with more than 4,000 total Assembly seats in India, translated to 20,600 EVM-VVPAT systems  well above the ISI’s recommendation of 479.

In Lok Sabha and Assembly elections so far, the EC said, 38,156 VVPATs have been checked randomly. “Not a single case of transfer of vote meant for candidate ‘A’ to candidate ‘B’ has been detected,” the EC said. But, the EC did admit that “differences in count, if any, have always been traceable to human errors like non-deletion of mock poll votes” from the control unit of the EVM or the VVPAT.

Since the introduction of VVPATs in 2017, the EC said it had received 25 complaints (including 17 during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls) out of the 118 crore voters who have cast their votes. It said all these complaints were found to be false.

The EC said the VVPAT was “essentially an audit trail” so the voter could verify the vote at that instant, but following Supreme Court orders, the slips were being tallied on a “statistically robust basis”. The EC said pressing for 100% verification was a “regressive thought and tantamount to going back to the days of manual voting using ballot system”. It said manual counting of all VVPAT slips would take time and introduce the potential of human error.

“Preparatory work for upcoming General Election to Lok Sabha has already started in the field. Indian elections are one of the largest peace time human mobilisations on the earth… Needless to add that slightest change in any protocol at the last minute poses serious technical, manufacturing issues which will take several levels to reach the execution level,” the EC said.

What happens next?

Reacting to the EC’s affidavit, ADR co-founder Jagdeep Chhokar told The Indian Express that the EC’s affidavit had admitted that there were “human errors” and if there was a mistake in any of the VVPATs in the five selected polling stations, then the VVPAT slip count would prevail over the EVM count. “If there is a mistake in the sample, there could be a mistake in the population that has not been detected,” he said. This is why, he said, the petition was pushing for the counting of all VVPAT slips.

The matter is now listed for hearing on November 3.

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