The VVPAT glitch: What really happened in Kasargod?

Sure, it's just 4 machines out of hundreds; but why do they all have the same lotus-shaped error? And why is the hand symbol appearing in a smaller size?

A voter presses a ballot button on an EVM (right); the BJP's saffron lotus symbol is on the left (representation image, courtesy @iamharmeetK/X)
A voter presses a ballot button on an EVM (right); the BJP's saffron lotus symbol is on the left (representation image, courtesy @iamharmeetK/X)

Ashlin Mathew

Four electronic voting machines (EVM) erroneously registered votes in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the mock polling exercise in Kasargod on Wednesday, April 17.

This led the Supreme Court to direct the Election Commission to look into the errors. A bench of justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta put out the direction while considering a petition on the EVM-VVPAT verification issue. The EC came back and told the Court that the allegation was "false".

This is despite the returning officer's letter to the Chief Electoral Officer of Kerala stating that in four VVPAT machines, an extra slip was coming out with the following message 'not to be counted' and 'standardisation done, VVPAT serial no'.

But what really happened?

From Kasargod Lok Sabha constituency, the UDF candidate is Congress leader Rajmohan Unnithan. His agent Muhammed Nasar Cherkalam Abdullah filed the first complaint with district collector Inbasekar K. The LDF candidate, CPI(M) leader M.V. Balakrishnan, followed. The BJP candidate for the constituency is M.L. Ashwini.

Nasar Cherkalam said in his complaint that the BJP’s lotus symbol was getting extra votes during the trial of the machines at the four polling stations in the Kasaragod Assembly constituency. “There were camps at seven locations and there were complaints at booths 1, 8, 139 and 4. We have asked for a replacement. The issue happened during the first and second rounds of testing. Third round there was no complaint. During the random check round too, we had no complaints,” said Nasar Cherkalam.

Details of the 'glitch'

In Kasargod constituency, there are 10 ballot options for the various candiates, including the NOTA button. However, when all the 10 options on the EVMs were pressed once each, the VVPAT (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail) gave two votes to the BJP in these four machines.

So 11 VVPAT slips would be printed for 10 pressed buttons, and the extra slip always showed the symbol of the lotus.

Assistant returning officer Binumon P. said the technical glitch happened only in four machines in four camps. “It was a technical glitch. All the extra slips with the lotus symbol had ‘not to be counted’ written on it. The issue was rectified in the third round. We will now check on the polling day. A report has been submitted to the district collector,” said Binumon. The machines were made by Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL).

In this Lok Sabha constituency, there are 190 booths. In every constituency, there should be 20 per cent extra machines, so this one requires 228 machines each, both control units and ballot units. There should also be 30 per cent extra VVPAT machines, so 247 VVPAT machines are needed. All of these were being tested ahead of the polling on 26 April.

So, coming back to the faulty four: even when the BJP’s lotus symbol was not being pressed, these erroneous VVPAT machines gave votes to the party, Nasar Cherkalam insists. “We were the first to raise the issue and when we raised it, the assistant returning officer said it had ‘not to be counted’ written on it,” Unnithan’s election agent admits as well.

However, he wants to highlight his candidate's apprehension that even if there is a ‘not to be counted’ stamp on the slip, should any issue occur during the counting, the BJP agents are likely to insist on counting these as their votes. “That is why we have requested new machines. What is the guarantee that these glitches won’t occur on the polling day? If it occurs on the polling day, then all these machines will have to be changed,” says Nasar Cherkalam.

He also asks why all the faulty machines only seem to favour the BJP candidate, never a Congress or CPI(M) candidate. Nasar has filed a complaint on this too to the ARO.

He has another point to note: “We also saw that the Congress ‘hand’ symbol was smaller than the other symbols. We have raised this complaint too.”

The extra VVPAT slip error was seen only in the first and second rounds of testing. In the third and fourth rounds and in the random testing round, there were no issues, both CPI(M) and Congress agents agreed.

Binumon says the BJP candidate was getting the extra VVPAT slip because his name was first on the list. “It happened only when the machines were being switched on. The technical engineer said it was not an issue,” he says.

The checking of EVMs continued until 1 a.m. on Thursday, 18 April. Their checking was scheduled to begin at 7 a.m., but began only at 10 a.m. as the officials arrived late.

The exercise then had to be paused as the full-body metal detectors were called to a new duty station, where BJP minister Rajnath Singh was speaking! So no one was allowed into the counting area during that time. The exercise resumed only after the metal detectors were sent back to the testing centres.

However, despite the glitch being very much present, recorded and witnessed, the Election Commission informed the Supreme Court that the news reports are false! “These news reports are false. We have verified the allegation from the district collector and it appears that they are false. We will submit a detailed report to the court,” said senior deputy election commissioner Nitesh Kumar Vyas to the apex court.

In Binumon's report to the collector and the collector's report to the chief electoral officer of Kerala lies the truth of the matter. The collector shared the two reports with the media after his press conference.

The assistant returning officer's report states that during the mock polling at Kasargod Government College, 'a few machines printed an extra slip with the symbol of the first candidate during self-checking'. The report also pointed out that this was longer than the usual slip printed during the mock poll, that it also had the VVPAT serial number and the message 'not to be counted' on it along with the BJP's symbol of the lotus.

The clincher was the collector's report to the chief electoral officer of Kerala. K. Inbasekar, in his report to Sanjay Kaul, states that the VPAT machines with serial numbers VVTED41294, VVTEF82139, VVTEJ14797 and VVTED49299 printed one extra slip each with the lotus symbol of the first candidate (BJP, alphabetically) after the control unit was switched on.

The collector's report further states that of the four VVPAT machines showing this behaviour, VVTED41294 and VVTEJ14797 were 'replaced due to technical problems' while the other two were commissioned for polling after being subjected to rigorous tests. VVTED49299 was used in a mock polling exercise for 1,000 votes; per Inbasekar's report: 'The mock poll slips were tallied with the machine count. Political parties/candidates' agents convinced and signed the Annexure 22 certificate. VVTEF82139 also finished commissioning after the mock test.'

The government-owned Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) is responsible for the manufacture and maintenance of EVMs. Collector Inbasekar, quoting BEL engineers Pawan Kumar Mishra and Shivam Yadav, said that the VVPAT machines gave an extra slip because the 'machines were taken to the commissioning table without taking the full print of standardisation slips'.

'Their explanation that some labourers disconnected is not at all acceptable. It is not practically possible for the labourers to do so. As the BEL engineers are responsible for the symbol loading unit, they shall be personally held responsible for the lapse,' wrote Inbasekar in his report.

However, the chief electoral officer's statement on the issue mentions only that the extra slip with the message 'not to be counted' was connected to the first candidate; it quietly leaves out that this was the BJP's lotus symbol, in fact.

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