VVPAT Verification | Day 3: Questions, answers, concerns

VVPATs for Voter Verification

Judges: Sanjiv Khanna J, Dipankar Datta J

Today, a bench of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta sought clarifications from the Election Commission of India (ECI) over the technical features of the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). 

The EVMs consist of three components: Ballot Unit, Control Unit, and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT). The Control Unit stores the vote cast by the voter by pressing the button displayed on the Ballot Unit. The VVPAT displays the symbol of the party for seven seconds, to enable the voter to verify that their vote was correct. 

On 18 April 2024, the Supreme Court reserved judgement in a plea seeking 100 percent vote verification of VVPAT to cross-check votes cast through EVMs. The Bench wished to clarify these doubts to be on the “same page” before making any directions. 

The Bench convened in the morning and directed a member of the ECI to clear these doubts at 2pm.  

1) Is the microcontroller installed in the Control Unit or the VVPAT? 

Justice Khanna pointed out that the Frequently Asked Questions, available on the ECI website, claimed that the microcontroller is in the VVPAT. He stated that the Bench was under the impression that the microcontroller is installed in the Control Unit, as per submissions by the ECI. 

The ECI officer clarified that each of the Ballot Unit, Control Unit, and VVPAT have their own microcontrollers. He further explained that these microcontrollers are housed in secure modules.

2) Is the microcontroller one-time programmable? 

The officer submitted that the programme is burnt in at the time of installation and is one-time programmable. He stated that the programme can never be changed. 

Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for lead petitioner Association for Democratic Reforms, had concerns with the officer’s answer. He argued that a microcontroller is “clearly reprogrammable” as per 20 computer experts who examined the chips used in EVMs. He pointed out that the microcontroller has a flash memory, and a flash memory is “always reprogrammable.” Justice Khanna stated that the microcontroller is sealed and burnt, making it impossible to be reprogrammed. Bhushan claimed that the microcontroller may have malicious programs installed on it. 

Justice Khanna, wary of repeating arguments, shot down these claims. “We have to rely on them [ECI] for the technical data…we have understood the argument, Mr. Bhushan,” stated Justice Khanna. He went on to say that the microcontroller in the Control Unit is “agnostic” and does not recognise a party or candidate name. Additionally, Khanna said, the manufacturers are unaware of which party will be assigned to each button on the Ballot Unit.

Bhushan expressed concern over the possibility of loading a malicious program into the flash memory of the VVPAT.

3) How many Symbol Loading Units are available with the ECI? 

The officer stated that there are over 5000 symbol loading units manufactured by the Electronics Corporation of India (ECIL) and Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL). Justice Khanna promptly asked a two-part question—can more symbol loading units be manufactured and how long does it take to manufacture them? 

The officer stated that the units can be manufactured within a month depending on the availability of the components. 

4) What is the correct limitation period for filing an Election Petition? 

Justice Khanna pointed out that Section 81 of the Representation of Peoples Act 1951 states that an election petition should be filed in 45 days. However, during the hearings, the ECI had submitted that the limitation period was 30 days. Thus, they stored the voting data for a period of 45 days. Justice Khanna suggested that the period of storage should be 60 days as the limitation period was 45 days under the RoPA. 

The officer stated that the limitation period for an election petition is 45 days. On the 46th day, the Chief Electoral Officer writes to the Registrar of the High Court asking if there are any election petitions pending before the court. If there is a petition, then the EVM is locked and “no one touches it.” 

5) Are the Control Unit and the VVPAT stored separately? 

The Bench stated that the FAQs have used the words ‘Control Unit’ and ‘EVMs’ interchangeably, which has led to confusion. EVMs consist of three parts: the Ballot Unit, the Control Unit, and the VVPAT. Justice Khanna asked whether all three of them are sealed and stored together or separately.  

The officer responded that the VVPATs are stored separately before polling begins. After the conclusion of the polls, all three units are sealed and stored together. 

No repetitions, just clarifications

In succession, several counsel wished to add suggestions and comments. Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde, speaking directly to the ECI officer, asked if there is room for another component on the image displayed on the VVPAT. A grinning Justice Khanna suggested that Hegde should directly ask if a bar code can be attached to the image. After the officer declined to respond, Hegde stated that the image of a bar code would “greatly help the process.”

Advocate Varun Thakur and petitioner Sabu Stephen attempted to make arguments but the Bench refused to hear them. Justice Khanna stated “Please don’t argue something which we have already argued…we had asked specific questions, we have got the answers and the counter viewpoints.” 

The Bench reserved judgement in the matter.