The Supreme Court on Friday upheld the electronic voting machine (EVM) system of polling and refused a plea to revive paper ballots, saying “blind distrust” of an institution or a system breeds unwarranted skepticism and impedes progress.

EVMs were first used in 1982 in the Assembly constituency of Paravur in Kerala in 50 out of 123 booths.

A Bench of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta, in a judgment which coincides with the second phase of the general elections to the Lok Sabha, also refused petitioners’ suggestion to hand over paper slips from voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) units to electors to take a leisurely look before inserting them into the ballot boxes.

The court refused to intervene against Section 49 MA of the Conduct of Election Rules, which penalises a voter whose complaint of mismatch (of votes cast and votes counted) would attract penal proceedings initiated by poll officials under Section 177 of the Indian Penal Code for submitting false information.

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The Bench further declined petitioners’, NGO Association for Democratic Reforms and Arun Kumar Agarwal, argument to direct the cross-verification of 100 per cent EVMs and VVPATs across the country. Currently, only five percent of EVM-VVPAT counts are randomly verified in any given Assembly constituency. Earlier it had been one percent, until the top court had intervened.

The court suggested to the Election Commission (EC) to explore the possibility of devising an “electronic machine” to count the VVPAT paper slips. This direction may have been prompted by an affidavit submitted by the EC during the hearing of the case. The poll body had explained that it takes an hour to manually count the VVPAT slips of a single polling station.

“On an average, 1,000 VVPAT slips are required to be counted per polling station… The small size and special nature of the paper makes the slips sticky. Manual counting of VVPAT slips is cumbersome at every step. The process cannot be expedited or hurried,” it had said.

The EC had also given the court a human perspective of why VVPAT slips’ counting cannot be hurried up.

“The overall environment in a counting centre is charged up and the counting personnel are under tremendous mental pressure. This is also a factor that affects the speed of counting of VVPAT slips,” it said.

According to the EC, there were 41,629 instances of random verification till date. Over four crore VVPAT paper slips had been matched till date. There was not a single instance of mismatch.

The court also suggested identifying political parties with unique bar codes along with symbols.

In a separate direction to the EC, the top court ordered that, from May 1, 2024, symbol loading units (SLU) should be sealed and secured after the process of loading symbols into VVPATs were over. Each SLU should be sealed in a special container in the presence of the candidates or their representatives, who would affix their signatures on the seal. The containers would be stored in a strong room along with the EVMs for 45 days post the declaration of the election results.

The court directed that the birth memory of microcontrollers of five percent of EVMs, which includes that of control units, ballot units, VVPATs, in every assembly segment of a parliamentary constituency can be checked and verified by a team of engineers of the EVM manufacturers in case of any suspicion of tampering.

The exercise would be initiated on a written request from candidates who have come second or third in the victor’s tally. The applicants would identify the EVM to be verified or the polling station. The application for verification should be sent within seven days of the declaration of the election results.

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The District Election Officer concerned, in consultation with the team of engineers, should verify the authenticity or intactness of the birth memory of the microcontrollers of the EVMs verified.

The expenses of the verification would be undertaken by the applicant candidates or their representatives. They would be refunded in case the EVMs are found tampered, the court directed.

Justice Datta, in his concurring judgment, said rather than blind distrust, a “critical as well as constructive approach guided by evidence and reason should be followed to make room for meaningful inferences and to ensure that the system is credible and effective”.

The court said the “voices and choices” of the electorate should be fortified through open dialogue, transparency and trust.

“We hope and trust that the system shall not fail the electorate and the mandate of the voting public shall be truly reflected in the votes cast and counted,” Justice Datta observed.