Supreme Court ruled on need for EVMs, but that was not the point

The justices went to great lengths to explain how the EVM works, and reproduced the reasons offered by the ECI against the petitions

EVM units: eye of the storm (photo: PTI)
EVM units: eye of the storm (photo: PTI)

A.J. Prabal

As reported on Friday, 26 April, the Supreme Court rejected pleas seeking 100 per cent cross-verification of electronic voting machines (EVMs) data with voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) records. The court, however, allowed the two losing polling votes closest to the winner to demand verification of the EVM, for a fee.

The five reasons cited by the bench comprising justices Sanjeev Khanna and Dipankar Datta for dismissing the prayer for cross-verification were the following:

* It will increase the time for counting and delay declaration of results

* The human resources required for counting would have to be doubled

* Manual counting is prone to human error and may lead to deliberate mischief

* Manual intervention in counting could create multiple charges of manipulation of results

* Past experience, data and the fact that neither parties nor candidates or voters had challenged the result declared by EVM counts displayed their faith in the machine

The bench, however, suggested that the Election Commission of India (ECI) could explore the possibility of an electronic machine to count the VVPAT slips, and whether there can be a bar code for each party on the slips in future.

What appears to have also weighed with the court is the ECI’s submission that the ongoing 2024 general elections will entail an estimated expenditure of around Rs 10,00,00,00,00,000 (1 lakh crore); that more than 10 lakh polling booths are required to be set up, and remote areas need to be reached by polling teams.

The bench did not dismiss outright the plea that voters have the fundamental right to ensure that their vote is accurately recorded and counted. However, the bench reflected that even when paper ballots were used, voters had no way of ensuring that their ballots were being counted.

The two justices then went to great lengths to explain how the EVM works, and reproduced the reasonings offered by the ECI against the petitions. In the process, they appear to have missed the point of the petitions before them.

The petitioners were not praying for reverting to paper ballots; nor were they seeking a replacement of either the EVM machine or the VVPAT unit. Their prayer was simply for instructions to the ECI to match the slips with the electronic counts to instil confidence in the system.

The bench also went out of its way to discuss if petitions based on "mere suspicion" should be entertained by the apex court (no, ruled justice Datta), and whether the petitioners had a vested interest in undermining “the achievements and accomplishments of the nation”.

In fact, Justice Datta, in his separate but concurring judgment, observed that there seemed to be efforts afoot to "discredit, diminish and weaken the progress" of the nation.

The justices appeared to be convinced that the petitions before them were designed to arouse apprehensions about possible manipulation of the process. They failed to consider the possibility that there already exist such apprehensions among the people and that the ECI today is a far less credible institution than before, which is why the petitions were filed in the first place.

The ECI’s insistence on being opaque, and its stubborn refusal to meet delegations of people, lawyers and opposition parties and address their concerns have arguably contributed to such apprehensions.

Perhaps justice Datta did have the ECI in mind when he wrote in his judgment, “Be it the citizens, the judiciary, the elected representatives, or even the electoral machinery, democracy is all about striving to build harmony and trust between all its pillars through open dialogue, transparency in processes, and continuous improvement of the system by active participation in democratic practices.”

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