Deccan Chronicle
Rakesh Singh
New Delhi

Stressing the need to maintain and protect voters' trust, the Supreme Court on Thursday cautioned the petitioners against doubting the electronic voting machines (EVMs). While reserving its verdict on a batch of pleas seeking complete cross-verification of votes cast using EVMs with voter verifiable paper audit trail slips (VVPAT) a bench of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta said the integrity of the entire electoral process must be ensured as over suspicion of everything is a problem.

The top court underscored the importance of voter satisfaction and trust in the electoral system and told petitioners, who sought its direction to go back to using ballot papers, not to suspect the efficacy of the EVMs.

The remarks by the bench came when advocate Prashant Bhushan, representing petitioner NGO Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), sought reversal of the poll panel's 2017 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.

"I understand it is election eve. At least the bulb that glows for seven seconds should be allowed to glow continuously after the button is pressed in the EVM," Mr Bhushan said.

The bench told Mr Bhushan that voter satisfaction and trust are at the core of the electoral process. "Mr Bhushan, now you are going too far. This is too much. Whether it's transparent or translucent glass on a VVPAT machine or the glowing of a bulb, ultimately it is the voter's satisfaction and trust (that matters). The bulb only helps you see better, that's all."

The top court said, "Everything cannot be suspected. You (Mr Bhushan) cannot be critical of everything. If they (the Election Commission) have done something good, you have to appreciate it. You don't have to be critical of everything."

Replying to the bench, Mr Bhushan said he is not casting any aspersion on the poll panel, but the possibility for improvement exists.

Justice Khanna told him: "Agree. But if they have improved things within the four corners of the law, then it is fine. Bulb or no bulb, how does it matter? If an explanation is given, then you must appreciate it. Over suspicion of everything is a problem. A voter has to satisfy himself, that's all. They gave an explanation for the improvement, you heard them and everyone heard them."

Solicitor-general Tushar Mehta said that as an officer of the court, he is submitting that these efforts by petitioners to doubt the efficacy of EVMs on the eve of the elections have an impact on voter percentage.

Mr Mehta said: "By these efforts, the vote percentage gets affected. People may think that something is wrong. The democratic choice of voter is being made into a joke despite repeated rebukes to them (the petitioners) by this court. I have asked my side to be ready for planted news reports and articles. Every time there is an important hearing, planted news reports and articles come up."

The bench asked Mr Mehta to leave it at that and clarified that the ADR petition was filed last year and that it was the court's fault that the matter could not be heard. "Yes, some new petitions have come now, but the one in which Mr Bhushan is appearing was filed long back. We have learnt to deal with comments on social media and people have the freedom to post their opinions on social media," Justice Khanna told Mr Mehta.

During the nearly daylong hearing, the bench also interacted for nearly an hour with senior deputy election commissioner Nitesh Kumar Vyas to understand the functioning of EVMs.

The bench posed several questions to Mr Vyas and said, "There seems to be some gap between what is available in the public domain and what should be available in the public domain. That needs to be bridged."

During the hearing on Thursday, the poll panel informed the top court that allegations of EVMs showing one extra vote during a mock poll in Kasaragod (Kerala) were false.

"These news reports are false. We have verified the allegation from the district collector and it appears that they are false. We will submit a detailed report to the court," Mr Vyas told the bench while countering the charge of Mr Bhushan.

On petitioners’ plea that paper ballots should be used instead of EVMs, the bench said, "Paper ballots have huge drawbacks and we don't want to think about them. Instead, we were thinking of using barcodes for political parties in the future, but that will be a humongous task."

"The Indian system is working well and the voting percentage is increasing in every election, which shows people are having faith in the system. We all know what used to happen with ballot papers," the bench said, referring to rigging and booth capturing incidents during elections in the past.

The bench said this while responding to the petitioners' contention that several developed countries have gone back to using ballot papers in elections.

Senior advocate Maninder Singh, representing the poll panel, said EVMs are standalone machines and cannot be tampered with, but the possibility of human error cannot be ruled out.

Underscoring that the electoral process has to have sanctity, Justice Datta told Mr Singh, "You have to allay the apprehensions, both in the court and outside the court. Let nobody have the apprehension that something that is expected is not being done."

The poll panel told the bench that no mismatch has ever been detected between the votes counted in the EVMs and VVPAT slips.

The Election Commission submitted that it has matched the EVM votes with more than 4 crores VVPAT slips and no instance of mismatch has been found so far.

The poll panel made the submission in the written statement filed in response to the queries raised by the top court during the hearing on Tuesday in connection with the petitions seeking complete verification of the EVM data with VVPAT.

In a 14-page affidavit, the poll panel assured the top court that it is impossible to tamper with EVMs “at any stage”.

On a query from the bench if tampering of EVMs was possible after polling, the Election Commission said polling officers press the “close” button at the end of polling and the machines do not accept any votes. The presiding officer records the poll start and close timings in the machine.

After the close of polling, the control unit is switched off and the ballot unit is disconnected from the control unit. It is then kept separately in their carrying cases and sealed with paper slips on which the polling agents sign, the poll panel said in its affidavit.

On a query from the bench about whether it is possible for a voter to get a slip after voting, the Election Commission flagged concerns that this will compromise the secrecy of the vote and may be misused outside the booth. "How it can be used by others, we cannot say," the poll panel said.

Mr Bhushan and senior advocate Gopal Sankararanarayanan appeared for the petitioners. Other lawyers represented the intervenors.

On Tuesday, the top court had questioned arguments questioning the sanctity of voting through EVMs based on data from private agencies and cautioned the petitioners against seeking to “bring down the system”.

Taking a dim view of calls for reverting to ballot papers, the apex court said the electoral process in India is a "humongous task" and recalled how polling booths were captured in the era of ballot papers to manipulate election results.

The seven-phase Lok Sabha polls begin on April 19.

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