As per sources quoted in The Wire, the Election Commission of India sent back 6.5 lakh VVPAT machines for being defective. These were from among the newest machine that were purchased in the run up to the 2019 General Elections. They were also subsequently used for Assembly Elections of many states. A total of 17.4 lakh VVPAT machines were ordered in 2018 and it has now been revealed that over 6.5 lakh of these machines turned out to be defective.
These machines were sourced from Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) as well as Electronics Corporation of India Limited, Hyderabad, among others.
“The defective VVPATs were awaiting repairs following a decision taken by the ECI on October 8, 2021. The Wire has learnt that instructions have not been sent to the union territories of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep and Daman and Diu,” reported The Wire.
When the publication spoke to a member of the opposition, they said that no explanation was given to them about the reason for which the machines were being sent back.
What is VVPAT?
The full form of VVPAT is Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail. It is a machine as important as the EVM or Electronic Voter Machine as it gives instant feedback to the voter with a printed voting slip. Once a vote is registered by the voter, by pressing on a button, the VVPAT machine prints the slips containing the name of the candidate voted for and automatically drops it in a sealed box. It is placed in a transparent box and when it prints the vote, it is displayed to the voter for 7 seconds before it gets dropped in the storage box.
However, VVPATs are not tallied in every polling booth. It has been a long standing demand of political parties that VVPATs be tallied with the final vote count. For now, VVPATS are counted in a random fashion where only some constituency’s votes are tallied with VVPAT slips.
VVPAT verification is also done when there are allegations of fraud or miscalculation of votes.
In case of discrepancy between number of votes counted by EVM and number of votes recorded by VVPAT, the latter is upheld.
In the 2019 general elections at least 8 cases of mismatch between EVM and VVPAT votes were found in Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya and Andhra Pradesh.
VVPAT slips were hurriedly destroyed in 2019
The revelation of these defective VVPATs brings into question why the ECI destroyed voter slips recorded by the VVPATS merely within 4 months of the 2019 general elections, in violation of the law.
The Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, under rule 94 (b) states that packets referred to in Rule 93(1) shall be retained for a period of one year and shall thereafter be destroyed and those packets containing the counterfoils of used ballot papers shall not be destroyed except with the previous approval of the Election Commission.
The packets referred to in Rule 93(1) include:
(a) The packets of unused ballot papers with counterfoils attached thereto;
(b) The packets of used ballot papers whether valid, tendered or rejected;
(c) The packets of the counterfoils of used ballot papers;
(d) The packets of the marked copy of the electoral roll or, as the case may be, the list maintained under sub-section (1) or sub-section (2) of section 152; and
2[(dd) the packets containing registers of voters in form 17-A;]
(e) The packets of the declarations by electors and the attestation of their signatures; (emphasis provided)
This means it is mandatory for the Election Commission to retain used ballot papers (among others) for at least a year. Then why were these ballot papers recorded by VVPATS in the 2019 general election destroyed within 4 months? The Quint had earlier both found and exposed this information that the VVPAT slips were destroyed through an RTI three years ago. Through the RTI it was found that the VVPAT slips were destroyed on the basis of express orders issued by the ECI. The publication also found that after VVPATS were assigned for the elections, they were checked and maintained by employees of a private company which left them vulnerable to be tampered with.
Supreme Court petition
A plea was filed by the NGO Association for Democratic Reforms last week seeking a declaration that it is the fundamental right of every voter to verify that their vote has been ‘recorded as cast’ and ‘counted as recorded’, reported LiveLaw. The plea pointed towards a vacuum in law as there is no procedure for the voter to verify that the vote has been ‘counted as recorded’ since there is no procedure to match the EVM voted with VVPATs. This refers to the randomly selected constituencies where such cross checking is done while other constituencies rely upon just EVM votes.
The petition states that a paper trial is a must and indispensable element of free and fair elections.
In 2019 a bench led by then CJI SA Bobade had dismissed a plea filed by Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief N. Chandrababu Naidu and 21 other parties seeking counting of at least 50% of VVPAT slips.
Civil servants speak
The Wire spoke to a former Chief Election Commissioner as well as another former civil servant to get their view on VVPAT counting. The former CEC said, “All VVPAT slips can be counted in a matter of seconds if they decide to use currency counting machines. These machines can be reprogrammed or the paper size can be enlarged to fit the machine. The technology is available. All that is required is the will.”
A former civil servant and a member of the Citizens Commission on Elections, M.G. Devasahayam, says, “In Germany, they went back to the paper ballot system because the EVM/VVPAT method was found to be ‘unconstitutional’ by their Supreme Court.”
M.G. Devasahayam, a former Army and IAS officer wrote in The Wire how transparent the paper ballot system was, since the vote was cast manually by stamping a paper and counting was done in the presence of the Returning Officer (RO) and candidates’ agents. He pointed out that in Germany EVMs were declared unconstitutional compelling the whole of Europe to go back to paper ballots and most of the USA also followed suit.
Citizens’ Commission on Elections
In January 2021, the Citizens’ Commission on Elections had come out with a report stating that EVMs cannot be assumed to be tamper proof. The CCE is chaired by former Supreme Court judge Madan Lokur and comprises former chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, former Madras High Court judge Hari Paranthaman, economist Arun Kumar, activist John Dayal, senior journalist Pamela Philipose, IIT-Delhi professor Subhashis Banerjee and former IAS officer Sundar Burra.
Many experts had deposed before the CCE as well as members of the technical committee of the ECI. The CCE’s report concluded that due to lack of End-to-End (E2E) verifiability, the EVM/VVPAT system is not verifiable and therefore unfit for democratic elections. The report also pointed out that the EVM design is not open for public technical audit which makes it all the more opaque.
Is EVM-VVPAT combination fool proof?
Kannan Gopinathan, the computer scientist turned civil servant (who resigned from services), who was Returning Officer in the 2019 general elections questioned the EVM-VVPAT system. In his thesis he writes, “If EVM-VVPATs are stand-alone machines not connected to any external device, as repeatedly claimed by the Election Commission of India (ECI), how does the VVPAT machine print the name and symbol of the chosen candidate? When and how are the names and symbols of the candidates uploaded on to the VVPAT? Does this affect the technical, physical and procedural security claims of our electronic voting process?”
These questions have been left unanswered till date by the ECI and consequently the transparency of voting and elections is at a questionable precipice.
It is not clear what defective VVPATS mean. Does it mean these VVPATS were unable to display the vote cast by the citizen? Does it mean these VVPATs were unable to record these votes as counted? Does it mean that if cross checked with the EVM votes, these VVPATS fell short, despite them having precedence over EVMs in cases of dispute? All these questions also remain unanswered.