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Supreme Court Offers Measures to Bolster Confidence in Electronic Voting Machines

A fool-proof voting and counting mechanism forms the foundation of electoral democracy and hence it is natural for the people to raise a doubt or two about the existing one at any point in time. Rigging the elections by various means including capturing of booths was a constant threat that undermined elections in the past. India has addressed those issues to a greater level of satisfaction by various measures, including the introduction of voter ID cards and optimal deployment of the law enforcement machinery.

The possibility of tampering with the electronic voting machines (EVMs) is a matter of concern today, as is evidenced by petitions that keep coming up in courts at regular intervals pointing to the possibilities of mischief. Courts have not yet bought the theories petitioners brought to them doubting the performance of the machines, but have used them as occasions to suggest further improvements in the existing system. The Supreme Court has followed this pattern when it dismissed last week the petition that sought 100 per cent coverage by Voter Verified Paper Audit Trails (VVPATs) of the Lok Sabha election.

The court ruled out the possibility of the return of the paper ballot, which is still being used in various democratic countries. It also refused to accede to the demand to raise the limit of VVPAT verification to 100 per cent from the present five per cent. However, it has directed the Election Commission of India to add two more precautionary measures which leaves scope for verification at a later stage, should a party raise a doubt.

The first is to seal and store the symbol loading units for 45 days after declaration of results so that they can be verified should there be an election petition. The second is permission granted to candidates to seek verification of the burnt memory semi-controllers in five per cent of EVMs per Assembly segment of each parliamentary constituency. This verification will be carried out by a team of engineers of the EVM manufacturers. The twin measures will help a candidate, who suspects tampering cost them their victory, go back and check if indeed the fear had a basis.

The court had consistently taken the position that there should be no total distrust of technology and we, instead, use it to improve the system. In line with the thought, the court suggested to the EC to see if the VVPAT paper slips can have bar codes so that they can be counted electronically. Such a system, if implemented, would almost fully address the concerns people have for the EVMs, for the voter can verify the slip which has their choice of symbol and the electronic machine can count them at a much higher speed than manual counting. The EC must take the suggestion very seriously, and if found technically feasible, implement it in the very next election.

That the court repeatedly sought the response of the EC to each of the points raised by the petitioners before it came to its conclusions indicates that such information is not available in the public domain. It is important that the general public is also provided with every piece of information on the EVMs. The EC must now not only follow up on the suggestions of the court, but also make a similar effort to convince them of the genuineness of its case. It must also take the initiative to introduce greater transparency in its processes instead of waiting for the courts to suggest them.

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