Source: 
The Newsminute
https://www.thenewsminute.com/news/sc-reserves-judgement-in-the-evm-vvpat-case
Author: 
Azeefa Fathima
Date: 
18.04.2024
City: 

A bench of Supreme Court Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta reserved the judgement after a day-and-a-half of hearing a batch of petitions that sought 100% verification of data between EVM and VVPAT.

The Supreme Court, on Thursday, April 18, reserved its judgement in the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM)-Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit trail (VVPAT) case. A bench of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta reserved the judgement after a day-and-a-half of hearing a batch of petitions that sought 100% data verification between EVM and VVPAT. The petitions filed by those including the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) sought that all VVPAT slips should be verified in all constituencies. Currently, only five EVMs are randomly verified in each Assembly segment by the Election Commission of India (ECI).

The matter was extensively heard on April 16 when the petitioners submitted that it was a fundamental right of voters to verify that their vote has been “recorded as cast” and “counted as recorded.” They argued that when the VVPAT slip is displayed for seven seconds for the voter to verify, the aspect of the vote “recorded as cast” is met, but there is no mechanism to fulfil the “counted as recorded” criteria.

The VVPAT is a machine that is connected to the EVM and once a person casts a vote, 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.

How does the system work?

On April 18, the court asked several questions to the ECI on how the EVM-VVPAT functions, technical details – including how the equipment is calibrated – and the safety mechanisms against tampering put in place. At the outset, Justice Datta observed that it was an electoral process and there had to be ‘sanctity’. “Let nobody have apprehension that something which is expected is not being done," he said. 

An ECI official explained that the EVM consists of three components—the Ballot Unit (BU), the Control Unit (CU) and the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT).

The Ballot Unit (BU) contains the names of candidates and the symbols on a printed label; this is used to press the button for whom voters cast their votes. Once the button is pressed, a red light is visible next to it.

Simultaneously, a small slip of paper containing a serial number, name and symbol of the candidate is printed and is visible in a glass display box on the VVPAT machine. This glass is black in colour and a light is used for around seven seconds for the voter to verify their vote. This paper then falls into a box and a loud beep is heard. The purpose of VVPAT slips is verification.

The Control Unit (CU) is the one which records the voters’ votes in its memory. Every CU has 4 MB of memory. According to the ECI, only VVPAT communicates with the CU and the vote is recorded.

On the day of counting, only the CUs are taken and the votes are counted by pressing a relevant button. This is done in the presence of candidates. The CU contains only serial numbers and not the names or symbols of candidates.

In all constituencies, five VVPPATs and CU’s are randomly selected and tallied.

ECI

The ECI submitted to the court that nothing is loaded in CU and the VVPAT machine has a flash memory containing the symbols. Ahead of the elections, the returning officer of the respective constituencies will prepare an electronic ballot with the serial number, name and symbol of the candidate and it will be loaded into a symbol loading unit (SLU). Seven days before the elections, in the presence of the candidates, the returning officer feeds the images of symbols into the VVPATs using the SLUs.

“So, seven days before the election, in the presence of candidates, you are feeding in images in flash memory of VVPAT. Once uploaded, it can't be changed because it's not connected to any computer, laptop,” Justice Datta asked, to which the ECI replied in the affirmative. The ECI also said that after the symbols are loaded, there are mock trials held to confirm if the symbols are loaded correctly. However, there is no security mechanism currently in place to seal the SLU to prevent any tampering, but it is kept separately, the ECI said.

“After first randomisation, the machines go to the strong room of the Assembly and put in lock and key in presence of political parties and they put whatever note they want to put… a mock poll is conducted before machines are put in the strong room. Candidates are allowed to pick up random machines and poll to check,” the ECI said.

The ECI also submitted that there was not even a single instance of mismatch found between data stored in the CU and the VVPAT slips in more than four crore VVPATs that were counted so far. It also argued that the VVPAT is not meant for counting and also cited privacy and secrecy concerns in handing over the slips to the voters.

The ECI said there is an unauthorised access detection module (UADM), and an alert is issued if anyone tries to access the machine unauthorisedly. The machine then gets reset to factory mode and cannot work anymore. As an additional safeguard, the unit will have to be sent back to the factory.

The court observed that there was a gap between the information furnished in the court by the ECI and the one available in the public domain. The ECI informed the court that it would be rectified by updating their FAQ section. 

Advocate Maninder Singh also contended, “EVMs are standalone machines and they cannot be tampered with. VVPAT can also not be tampered with. Human error cannot be ruled out in manual counting, but it has been minimised.”

‘Need light for more than seven seconds’

Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for ADR, argued that the light in the VVPAT machine remains on only for seven seconds and contended that at least the light can be on always so that voters can see the slip cutting and falling or other slip being cut and falling into the box.

The court also pulled up advocate Bhushan, saying, “Mr Bhushan, whether it is transparent, translucent glass on the VVPAT machine or bulb, you are taking it too far. The bulb helps you see it, that is all. The calculation is by the control unit every time a vote is cast, the slip falls off and the total is verified by the polling officer. Now, everything cannot be suspected. You cannot be critical of everything. If an explanation is given, you must appreciate it!.... Whether to have a bulb or not or the brightness, etc. is for them to decide. We are not disputing it is a fundamental right, but over suspicion is not working out here,” the bench observed.

Bhushan also argued that it was not possible to find out if a malicious programme is fed into the equipment and it cannot be detected as even the technician would not know about it.

During the hearing, Bhushan cited a report published by Manorama Online about complaints of EVMs recording extra votes for the BJP during mock polls conducted in the Kasargod constituency in Kerala. The bench asked the ECI to check this matter. At 2 pm, the ECI official told the Supreme Court that the news report cited was "totally false."

It is to be noted that the said news report stated that “four electronic voting machines (EVM) erroneously registered votes in favour of BJP during mock polling in Kasaragod.” However, sources who spoke to TNM said three VVPAT machines printed out one slip each with the BJP symbol twice.

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