The Supreme Court on Monday asked the Election Commission to increase voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) verification to five random Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in each assembly segment/constituency for better voter confidence and credibility of the electoral process. In case of general elections, VVPAT slips of five EVMs in each assembly segment of a parliamentary constituency would be subject to physical counting. In state elections, the VVPAT verification would extend to five random EVMs in each constituency.
The ECI followed a system of counting VVPAT slips in one polling booth per assembly constituency in assembly elections, and one polling booth in each assembly segment for Lok Sabha polls. A bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi rejected the request of 21 opposition parties leaders, including TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu, that VVPAT slips of 50% EVMs be matched, saying it will require huge manpower and is not feasible keeping in view infrastructural difficulties.
The apex court said that it will increase the number of EVM-VVPATs subjected to physical verification in order to “ensure the greatest degree of accuracy, satisfaction in election process. Not only political parties but the poor and the illiterate should be satisfied.” Senior advocate AM Singhvi, appearing for the leaders, argued that they do not mind a delay of six days in declaration of Lok Sabha election results for counting of 50% of VVPAT slips. They said it “is not a serious delay in any manner if it ensures integrity of electoral process. If a delay of 5.2 days is to be balanced with the integrity of electoral process, the balance will certainly tilt towards the latter.”
The opposition leaders said the delay of 5.2 days, as the EC claims, will occur only if the Commission chooses not to increase its present workforce but the delay would be substantially reduced if the workforce is increased by even one person. The leaders took this stand after the ECI said that a 50% random physical verification of VVPATs would delay Lok Sabha poll results of 2019 by almost six whole days, quoting a March 22 report of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), which had said that a sample verification of 479 EVMs and VVPATs out of a total 10.35 lakh machines would lift public confidence to 99.9936%.
Senior advocate CA Sundaram, appearing for ECI, pointed out that VVPAT counting is a manual job and the risk of error multiplies with an increase in human intervention. ECI also stated that increased VVPAT slip counting will require extensive training and capacity building of election officials. “It is further submitted that when the polls are imminent and polling is to commence from April 11, 2019, to now seek to alter the system adopted by the ECI at this stage might not be feasible,” the poll panel said.
Sundaram said any increase in the sample size of verification from the existing norm of one polling booth per assembly segment would lead to very negligible gain in the confidence level, which is way above 99.99%. Senior Counsel Kapil Sibal, also appearing for the petitioners, drew the bench’s attention to a RTI report revealing that the ISI was not even involved in the exercise undertaken in March to ascertain the requirement to increase manual counting.
The ECI opposed Sibal’s argument, saying that the ISI chief could be produced to vouch for there having been no opinion to the contrary at the end of the institute.
The opposition leaders had moved the SC arguing that the VVPAT slips of at least 50% of voting machines in each assembly constituency be matched with EVMs during the counting of results in the general elections starting April 11.
The leaders said, “The present guideline issue by ECI makes VVPAT completely ineffective and merely ornamental in nature. It defeats the entire purpose of introducing VVPAT and renders the judgement and directions passed by the court completely futile.”