By ordering an increase of the existing Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) verification rate from one to five random Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) per Assembly constituency or segment, the Supreme Court has sought to reassure those sceptical about the integrity of counting by means of EVMs. By limiting the verification to five machines instead of the 125-odd machines per constituency that the Opposition’s demand for a 50% VVPAT count would have amounted to, the apex court has enabled the Election Commission of India to declare the results on the counting day itself. The higher figure, which will increase the overall number of EVMs to be counted to close to 20,000 machines, should reasonably address the very remote possibility of ‘insider fraud’. It will also verify a higher sample of EVMs in the smaller States and bring the sample within reasonable confidence levels to discount chances of EVM-tampering. In any case, the VVPAT slip verification is more of a reassurance to voters that the EVM is indeed foolproof, over and above the technical and administrative safeguards that are already in place to prevent any tampering. This should effectively blunt criticism that has, unnecessarily, brought the electoral process into doubt. The fact that some of the Opposition parties moved away from their untenable demand for a return to paper ballots in their petition to a plea for a higher VVPAT count has also helped yield this reasoned proposition from the Supreme Court.
For the ECI, the key technical issue with EVMs and VVPATs is not really in regard to tampering but to machine glitches. While the parliamentary by-elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and the Assembly election in Karnataka last year had registered significant machine replacement rates (20% and 4%, respectively), these were brought down to less than 2% in later elections held in the winter months. The ECI made technical fixes to the VVPAT to make them more resilient during use across the country, and it should be well-prepared to handle any glitches during the seven-phase Lok Sabha election. The availability of replacement machines and the ability to deploy them quickly in case of a failure of VVPATs are essential to avoid disruptions. In the past couple of years, the doubts raised about EVMs by parties and the new constraints encountered in the electoral process due to hastened VVPAT implementation have bogged down the ECI and narrowed the discourse regarding electoral reforms. Now that the Supreme Court has brought a closure of sorts to the issue, it is time for the ECI to focus on the hassle-free conduct of polls to the Lok Sabha and to four State Assemblies, and later consider other important issues — increasing voter enrolment, effective regulation of campaign financing and implementation of the model code of conduct.
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