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The answer: No. But the deep suspicion about electronic voting can be quelled by only allowing voters to personally drop VVPAT slips into a box and counting 100 per cent of them in each constituency

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 373 constituencies reported a mismatch between the votes polled and votes counted, fanning doubts about the Electronic Voting Machine. Representation pic

A Congress candidate in Odisha during India’s first General Election told voters that Mahatma Gandhi’s soul was in the ballot box, and it would “see the truth” of their voting decision. Today, judging from the popular reaction, it might seem a jinni resides in the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM), switching votes from different parties to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

For instance, the other week, I was discussing the ferment in Maharashtra with Marathi historian Indrajit Sawant. Seven out of ten people in Maharashtra are opposed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sawant said, adding, “But you can never tell what results the EVM will produce.” Among all the proliferating biting remarks about the EVM that I have heard, nothing surpasses what a village Pradhan in Uttarakhand told me, “EVMs, not people, decide who wins.” When I sneered, he shot back, “Nobody would believe cricket matches were fixed until it was proved true.”

The suspicion about the EVM can be read as an attempt to rationalise the BJP’s electoral domination. Yet there is a statistic to contend with – in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 373 constituencies reported a mismatch between the votes polled and votes counted, fanning doubts about the EVM.

Sure, the era of ballot-paper voting was marred by the stuffing of ballot boxes. But nobody complained that the ballot paper they stamped for, say, X was polled for Y. The system was transparent – after a person stamped the ballot paper and dropped it into the box, the polling agents of his/her choice of party ensured his/her vote was counted as cast. Even the looting of the ballot boxes was, ironically, transparent – and therefore frequently reported – often leading to repolling.

This comfort the EVM no longer provides. You may press a button on the EVM and verify your vote as cast via the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail, or VVPAT, slip, which flashes for seven seconds the party’s name and symbol whom you endorsed before dropping off into a box. It has been shown, theoretically and practically, that the vote cast for one party can be transferred to another through the manipulation of the EVM-VVPAT-Control Unit system, which is opaque as none can see its innards functioning.

It was to set right the lack of transparency the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) petitioned the Supreme Court in March 2023, and followed it up with an application in January, pleading for an urgent hearing. The ADR’s plea is that the VVPAT slip, instead of dropping into the box after the voter presses a button on the EVM, should spring out. The voter should personally drop the slip into the box. Second, all VVPAT slips in each constituency should be tallied with the counts obtained from EVMs there, instead of matching them in just five polling stations in each Assembly seat, as is the practice today.

The Supreme Court, on February 9, rejected the plea for urgent hearing. While doing so, Justice Sanjay Khanna said, “Are we not sometimes over-suspicious?” His was a strange comment, for suspicions regarding an opaque system, as the EVM system is, would be rife until proved otherwise.

Khanna’s remark violates the spirit of the Supreme Court’s 2019 judgment on former Chief Minister N Chandrababu’s petition, which wanted the count of 50 per cent of EVMs in each constituency to be matched with their VVPAT slips. The court accepted the Election Commission of India’s argument that with the 2019 Lok Sabha elections looming, it would encounter “infrastructure difficulties” to implement Naidu’s plea. It, thus, ordered VVPAT slips to be counted as they are today.

Let alone making the electronic voting system transparent, the ECI has acted in reverse. It has now inexplicably replaced the VVPAT machine’s transparent glass window – through which the voter sees not only the VVPAT slip to verify whether his/her vote for a party has been correctly cast, but also whether the slip has dropped into the box – with darkened reflective glass window. Computer engineer Rahul Mehta demonstrated that the darkened glass window could facilitate EVM’s manipulation.

Worse, the ECI has rebuffed the Congress’s repeated efforts to discuss counting of 100 per cent VVPAT slips, even as new ideas surface as to how to tally votes fast. For instance, ADR’s Jagdeep Chhokar has suggested that the EVM should be connected to a simple printer, with the VVPAT machine and Control Unit taken out of the system. The printer would print a slip with the name and symbol of the party for which the vote has been cast, along with a barcode. The voter would drop the slip into a box. The barcode would speed up the counting, overcoming the ECI’s objection that physically totalling slips would delay election results for four-five days.

The BJP, too, opposes the counting of all VVPAT slips in each constituency. But a delay of a few days in announcing results does not matter, does it? Given that the BJP boasts it would bag 370 seats in the forthcoming elections, it is an appropriate moment for the party to pick up the Opposition’s gauntlet for counting all VVPAT slips – and quell the suspicion about the jinni in the EVM.

The writer is a senior journalist

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The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper

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