Hindustan Times
Abraham Thomas

A bench headed by chief justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud gave a week’s time for the poll panel to file its response

The Supreme Court on Friday sought the response of the Election Commission of India (ECI) on the disclosure of the authentic voting percentage of the first two phases of the ongoing Lok Sabha elections after a plea filed by Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) pointed out that the final voting figures showed an increase of 6% from the tentative voting percentage released soon after the conclusion of polling.

A bench headed by chief justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud gave a week’s time for the poll panel to file its response and posted the matter for hearing on May 24, the eve of the sixth phase of polling.

The plea, argued by advocate Prashant Bhushan, said that soon after voting for the two phases on April 19 and 26 ended, ECI issued a press release giving tentative voter turnout across 21 states and Union territories to be 60% in first phase and 60.96% for second phase as of 7pm. The revised data published on April 30 recorded an increase of nearly 6% with the total voting figures for the two phases being 66.14% and 66.71%.

To be sure voting percentages usually rise in the days after provisional turnout is released as it takes time for polling team to return from far-flung polling booths situated in geographically challenging terrains, depending on weather conditions among other things. The delay in updating data can also occur due to re-polling in any constituency. However, the lag this time has been longer, and that was fixed in the third phase.

Being the last working day before the court closes for vacation, the bench took up the matter on an urgent mentioning by advocate Prashant Bhushan appearing for ADR and told EC counsel Amit Sharma to take instructions. Taking up the matter after 4pm, the court asked EC why there was delay in uploading the voting percentage.

In the hearing, which resumed at 6pm (after judges returned from a farewell function of retiring judge justice AS Bopanna), the court asked EC, “On what basis do you disclose the tentative voting percentage. Is it based on Form 17C? What is the difficulty of putting this on website?”

Bhushan said that every polling officer in the election booth is required to fill up Form 17C and submit to the returning officer. This form contains the actual figures of voting which needs to be uploaded by EC, he added.

The EC counsel explained that after polling is completed, the returning officer collects data from the entire constituency, which takes time. While some constituencies are at far flung places, there are other constituencies where repolling is ordered.

“This application is filed on May 9 and there is a set pattern. It started with questioning of electoral roll, EVMs and now voting percentage. This issue is only to create doubt in the minds of new voters. Such impression creates an impact on voter turnout,” Sharma said.

Senior advocate Maninder Singh, who later joined the hearing on behalf of EC said that the Supreme Court had on April 26 given an authoritative pronouncement on all aspects including EVMs where the issue of Form 17C was also discussed. Bhushan denied this but Singh said that the issue should not detain the court any further noting that the matter was being taken up after hours at the behest of some vested interest.

The bench, also comprising justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, objected to this comment. “That is a very wrong charge against the court. If need arises, we will sit through the night,”it said.

Realising that the issue cannot be decided in a hurry, the bench allowed EC’s request to respond to the application.

“It is submitted that four phases of elections have been completed and since the application have been filed in a petition filed by ADR (pending since 2019) after four years, we find the request of EC to be fair. We grant EC a week’s time to file response and direct that the application be listed before the assigned bench on May 24,” the order said.

EC told the court that the Form 17C data is shared with every poll candidate and in case of any objection, the candidate is free to raise it . “There is no ground taken to demonstrate that there is any aggrieved person. The preliminary figures of voting are provided in the app which is not accurate and gets updated later.”

The application by ADR took exception to the “unreasonable delay” shown by ECI in disclosing data on votes polled as the data for first phase voting was disclosed 11 days after voting ended on April 19 and 4 days after the second phase voting closed on April 26.

Asking EC to put these apprehensions to rest, it added: “In order to uphold the voter’s confidence, it is necessary that the ECI be directed to disclose on its website scanned legible copies of Form 17C Part- I (Account of Votes Recorded) of all polling stations which contains the authenticated figures for votes polled, within 48 hours of the close of polling.”

ADR filed the application in a pending petition filed by it in 2019 raising concern over EVMs.

Over the last few weeks, the Trinamool Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist) have written letters to ECI to publish the total number of electors in each parliamentary constituency, total number of voters noted in the register of voters kept at the polling station, and the number of votes as per EVM across all parliamentary constituencies that voted in the first and second phases. The Congress party, too, wrote to political leaders raising concern over the issue.

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