Source: 
News18
https://www.news18.com/explainers/why-is-ec-against-disclosing-voter-turnout-data-under-form-17c-why-was-a-petition-filed-in-the-matter-8901301.html
Author: 
News Desk
Date: 
23.05.2024
City: 
New Delhi

The EC explained with each Lok Sabha seat having 2,000 to 3,000 booths, it takes a lot of time to bring the sealed EVMs, copies of original Form 17C by each of the Presiding Officer to the Strong Room, where the constituency’s Returning Officer is usually located

With India almost in the last leg of the Lok Sabha Election, the Election Commission (EC) has opposed the plea seeking uploading of voter turnout data at every polling station on its website, and told the Supreme Court it cannot upload Form 17C because there is no legal mandate to give the information to anyone other than the candidates and their agents.

Last week, the Supreme Court had asked the EC to submit a response to a petition by NGO Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), which asked for scanned copies of Form 17C to be uploaded on the EC website after the polls are conducted.

The EC stated the difference between the statutory disclosure of the number of votes recorded in each polling station under Form 17C and the non-statutory disclosure of the turnout on the polling day in the form of a press release and its Voter Turnout app.

WHAT IS FORM 17C?

The EC classifies voter turnout disclosure in two categories – statutory, where the Form 17C is given to polling agents, and non-statutory, where the data is disclosed through EC app, website and press releases.

Although there is no mandate to provide the Form 17C data to anyone, the voter turnout information is released through the app at two-hour intervals on the polling day.

Under Rules 49S and 56C of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, the presiding officer prepares an account of votes recorded in Part-I of Form 17C and makes it available to every polling agent present at the close of the poll.

The EC says the non-statutory disclosure (through the Voter Turnout App) comes with a disclaimer and is reflective of the data capture taking place through various non-statutory sources. It contemplates that wholesome disclosure of Form 17C “is amenable to mischief and vitiation of entire electoral space”.

As per Article 329(b) of the Constitution, an election process remains consistent and is not to be interfered with while it is ongoing.

The EC said the information in Part-II Form 17C, of the total votes recorded, is set in stone. Part-II of Form 17C is filled on counting day, with the number of votes counted.

WHY EC DOES NOT WANT TO SHARE THE DATA

The EC said the rules framework had “held the field for the last 60 years” and any change would require an amendment to the framework itself.

“…a wholesome disclosure of Form 17C is amenable to mischief and vitiation of (the) entire electoral space. At the moment, the original Form 17C is only available in the Strong Room and a copy only with the polling agents whose signature is bears… indiscriminate disclosure, public posting on the website increased the possibility of the images being morphed, including the counting results which then can create widespread public discomfort and mistrust in the entire electoral processes,” the EC said.

The EC explained with each Lok Sabha seat having 2,000 to 3,000 booths, it takes a lot of time to bring the sealed EVMs, copies of original Form 17C by each of the Presiding Officer to the Strong Room, where the constituency’s Returning Officer is usually located.

The EVMs and original records are placed in the Strong Room and sealed in the presence of the candidates and their representatives.

The EC hit out at the petitioner, saying there are “certain elements with vested interests” who keep throwing such baseless and false allegations, “creating unwarranted atmosphere of suspicion” to discredit the Election Commission of India. “It is most humbly submitted that there is a consistent malafide campaign/design/efforts to keep on raising suspicion and doubt in every possible manner and by misleading assertions and baseless,” the EC said.

WHY WAS THE PETITION FILED?

It was in 2019 that the ADR had filed a petition, alleging discrepancies in the voter turnout data in the general elections that year. The EC had filed its counter-affidavit on April 15, 2022, to which a rejoinder had been filed.

This time, the ADR alleged inordinate delay in the publication of voter turnout data of the first two phases of polling in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

As per the petition, for phase 1, it took the EC 11 days, and four days each for three subsequent phases, to publish the final numbers – but that too in the form of percentages as opposed to absolute numbers disclosed earlier.

It said the data published by the EC in its April 30 press release showed a sharp increase (by about 5-6%) from the initial percentages announced by it on the polling day.

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