EVM-VVPAT case | SC says EVM microcontrollers are ‘agnostic’, do not recognise parties or candidates, only buttons

Advocate for the petitioner, Association for Democratic Reforms, said the ECI’s claim that the microprocessors were not reprogrammable was ‘in doubt’; malicious software could be uploaded along with symbols

April 24, 2024 11:13 am | Updated 10:04 pm IST - NEW DELHI

The ballot unit, control unit and the VVPAT are parts of the EVM in India. File 

The ballot unit, control unit and the VVPAT are parts of the EVM in India. File  | Photo Credit: GN Rao

The Supreme Court on Wednesday called the microcontrollers separately programmed by manufacturers in electronic voting machines (EVMs) “agnostic”, for they do not recognise political parties or candidates but only the buttons pressed by voters.

“Microcontrollers in the control units [of EVMs] are agnostic. They do not recognise party or candidate names. What they recognise is the buttons pressed on the ballot units,” Justice Sanjiv Khanna, heading a two-judge Bench, observed. 

Justice Khanna said the buttons on the ballot units were interchangeable.

“A party which got button 1 in a constituency would get button 6 in another constituency. The programming of the units are done at the manufacturer stage. Manufacturer would not know which party would get what button,” Justice Khanna surmised.

The court emphatically said EVM source code should not be disclosed as it would be prone to misuse. “It will become a problem. Disclosure will expose it to misuse. Integrity will suffer,” Justice Khanna said.

Also Read:EVM-VVPAT case | Cannot disclose ‘source code’ of EVMs, will result in misuse: Supreme Court

The case dealt with petitions claiming that the EVM system was opaque and prone to rigging. The Bench of Justices Khanna and Dipankar Datta had reserved the case for judgment on April 18, but convened again on Wednesday, in an unusual move, with more questions for the top poll body.

This development came even as the Lok Sabha elections are poised for the second phase of polling on April 26.

The morning session saw the Bench read out in open court the specific queries it had for the ECI concerning the security and functional aspects of EVMs  and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT). Post-lunch break, Deputy Election Commissioner Nitesh Kumar Vyas appeared in person to respond to the court’s questions, which were exactly five in number.

Mr. Vyas, on the first query as to where exactly the microcontrollers were situated, said all three units comprising an EVM — ballot units, control units, and VVPATs — had their own microprocessors.

Also Read: EVM-VVPAT case LIVE updates

To the second question about whether the microcontrollers were reprogrammable, the ECI official said they were “one-time programmable” at the time of manufacturing. The microprocessors could neither be changed nor physically accessed, he said.

However, advocates Prashant Bhushan, Cheryl D’Souza and Neha Rathi, for the petitioner Association for Democratic Reforms, said the ECI’s claim that the microprocessors were not reprogrammable was “in doubt”. The “flash memory” of these processors could be reprogrammed, Mr. Bhushan argued.

He said malicious software could be uploaded along with symbols. “When a vote is cast, the signal travels from the ballot unit to the VVPAT to the control unit. If the VVPAT has malicious software…” he pointed out.

Justice Datta intervened to note that there had not been a single instance to back this claim.

Also read: What is the EVM-VVPAT verification issue before the Supreme Court? | Explained

“Even if there is, the law provides for that. We cannot be the controlling authority of another constitutional authority (the ECI),” Justice Datta said.

Senior advocate Santosh Paul, on the petitioner’s side, urged the court to direct the ECI to try out some anti-rigging software available in India.

“Can we issue a mandamus on suspicion?” Justice Datta reacted.

Mr. Vyas, responding to the court’s third query about Symbol Loading Units, said the Electronics Corporation of India Limited and Bharat Electronics Limited had manufactured 1,904 and 3,154 units so far, respectively. More could be produced roughly in a month.

On a query regarding the storage of EVM-VVPATs, he said the machines were sealed and kept in strong rooms for a statutory period of 45 days after the counting of votes. The strong rooms were opened after 45 days on receiving a written confirmation from the High Courts concerned that there were no election petitions contesting the results.

The last question from the court was whether VVPATs, ballot units, and control units were stored together.

Mr. Vyas said the units remained separate until they were commissioned to constituencies. Pairing was done after the commissioning, he explained.

After polling, the Presiding Officer sealed the units and stored the EVM-VVPATs together in a strong room after getting the signatures of all the witnesses to the procedure, the senior official explained.

The case continues to be reserved for judgment.

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