Opposition raises doubts over EVMs, demands return to ballot papers

Leaders from 23 opposition parties announced on Sunday they will approach the Supreme Court to demand a minimum of 50% of votes cast in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections be verified with a paper trail, ratcheting up criticism of electronic voting machines (EVM) just three days after polling began.

Representatives of the Congress, the Telugu Desam Party, Samajwadi Party, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Left parties, among others, said in Delhi that a large number of EVMs had malfunctioned during the first phase of polling on April 11, and that to restore the credibility of the electoral system, at least half the votes cast had to be checked with the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system.

“We are going to politely seek politically in the country through a campaign and legally in the court that at least a 50% sample check is of vital importance. Otherwise, a serious question mark arises on the process,” said senior Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi, adding that the top court had “in principle” accepted the Opposition’s argument.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) called it an absurd excuse, and said the opposition parties were involved in “self-deception”.

Under VVPAT, a paper slip is generated showing the serial number, name and symbol of the candidate a voter has chosen and displayed through a transparent screen for seven seconds before getting cut and deposited in a box. In a ruling last Monday, the Supreme Court asked the Election Commission (EC) to increase random matching of EVMs to VVPAT slips from one to five in a constituency. The decision had come on a petition by leaders from 21 opposition parties that had demanded 50% VVPAT verification.

“Questions were raised after the first phase of elections, we don’t think the EC is paying adequate attention. If you press the button before X party, the vote goes to Y party. VVPAT displays only for 3 seconds, instead of 7 seconds,” Singhvi said.

Currently, a five-member team, including the returning officer, selects the EVMs where the vote count will be matched with paper slips.

The EC did not immediately respond.

The EC has come under heavy political fire from opposition parties since the end of the first phase last Thursday, especially from Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, whose Telugu Desam Party (TDP) is fighting to retain control of Andhra Pradesh, the state with the largest chunk of Lok Sabha seats in the first phase.

The state is also holding simultaneous assembly elections. Naidu claimed that 25% to 30% of the EVMs malfunctioned during the first half of the day, which led to polling going on till the early morning hours of Friday in some booths.

“Is this democracy?” Naidu asked.

On the day of voting, several people had taken to social media saying they were unable to vote because of EVM malfunction or because their names had allegedly been deleted from the voter rolls.

Naidu said that the opposition parties would go for a fresh petition or a review petition. He said the results should be announced after counting 50 % of VVPAT. “Why are the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] and its allies opposing the decision? They have to answer now. Why is the election commission not acting impartially? Ultimately, We are left with the court. Again, we will appeal to the court. We will ask the Supreme Court to do justice, to save democracy,” Naidu said.

The BJP dismissed these concerns and asked if EVMs were inaccurate then how the Congress won recent elections in the Hindi heartland. “It is a very convenient excuse to blame it on the machine. Now there is a paper record in addition to electronic record which gives confidence to the voting process. These parties are indulging in collective self-deception. They have a problem only when they are losing. In the just concluded Andhra Pradesh elections, nearly 3 crore people voted and no one complained that the paper trail was not working properly. These attempts at questioning the voting process are just bogus attempts to find excuses,” said BJP leader GVL Narasimha Rao.

To be sure, in a press conference the night of April 11, the poll watchdog had said the percentage of EVM units replaced was 0.73 %, the percentage of EVM control units replaced was 0.61% and the percentage of VVPATs replaced was 1.70%. In the Supreme Court, the EC had said that increasing the number of VVPATs would increase the role of manual counting, thereby leading to errors and that it would lead to a logistical delay in counting and declaring the results.

“If you can see your cell phones, every six months you change it because the technology is changing. But here, for the last so many years, the same EVMs [have been used],” added Naidu. “We are raising doubts about the EVMs. The confidence of the voter can only be restored through paper trail machines.”

He met chief election commissioner Sunil Arora on Saturday but indicated that the meeting did not yield a resolution. EVMs were first used for a nationwide election in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.

In a letter to the TDP’s legal cell on Saturday after the meeting, the EC said it did not find appropriate to interact with one of the technical experts the TDP team presented — Hari Prasad — who the poll watchdog said was “involved in a criminal case regarding alleged theft of EVM machine in 2010”. The EC further said that any other expert in the field was free to interact on Monday.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party accused the EC of not paying heed to the complaints of EVM manipulation. “The machines are not faulty but they are programmed like that. When they are detected, it is said the machine was faulty. It cannot be that every time a machine was found faulty, the votes invariably go to BJP. I am an engineer, understand technology. Have you ever seen TVs or refrigerators developing faults on such a scale?”

Senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal said EVMs could be manipulated and it could even be demonstrated. “We will need a machine for it,” he said. The government and the EC have both denied that EVMs can be hacked, and the poll watchdog even held a so-called hackathon in 2017.

Naidu also accused the EC of inaccuracies in its affidavit to the apex court and pointed out that a number of developed countries – such as Germany and the Netherlands – had gone back to paper ballots.

“They are saying [it will take] six days to count an assembly segment. Is it fair? We were in a paper ballot. It used to take 12 hours to 18 hours, or a maximum of 24 hours. I contested the first election in 1978, only paper ballots. It is very simple also. It is a simple slip, at the top name of the candidate and symbol. You want to segregate, it is not much time. You can also count at the same time, it is very easy.”

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