Indian Express
Damini Nath
New Delhi

The apex court had asked the EC to submit a response to a petition by Association for Democratic Reforms, which asked for scanned copies of Form 17C to be uploaded on the EC website as soon as polling concludes.

Responding to a plea for uploading voter turnout data, polling station-wise, on its website at the close of polling day, the Election Commission told the Supreme Court Wednesday that it cannot upload Form 17C, which is the record of votes polled at a polling station, because there is no legal mandate to give it to anyone other than candidates and their agents.

On May 17, the top court had asked the EC to submit a response to a petition by Association for Democratic Reforms, which asked for scanned copies of Form 17C to be uploaded on the EC website as soon as polling concludes.

In its response, the EC underlined the difference between the statutory disclosure of the number of votes recorded in each polling station in the form of Form 17C and its non-statutory, voluntary disclosure of voter turnout on polling day in the form of press releases and its Voter Turnout app.

“It is submitted that there is no legal mandate to provide the Form 17C to any person other than the candidate or his agent,” the EC said.

Under Rules 49S and 56C of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, the presiding officer prepares an account of votes recorded in Part-I of Form 17C and makes it available to every polling agent present at the close of the poll.

The EC said the rules framework had “held the field for the last 60 years” and any change would require an amendment to the framework itself.

It said it issues two press releases on polling day, including one at 11.45 pm that takes into account the time taken for most polling parties to return. The next day the records are scrutinised in the presence of candidates and the Voter Turnout app reflects the data on a live basis. The information in Part-II Form 17C, of the total votes recorded, is set in stone, it said. Part-II of Form 17C is filled on counting day, with the number of votes counted.

“…a wholesome disclosure of Form 17C is amenable to mischief and vitiation of (the) entire electoral space. At the moment, the original Form 17C is only available in the Strong Room and a copy only with the polling agents whose signature is bears… indiscriminate disclosure, public posting on the website increased the possibility of the images being morphed, including the counting results which then can create widespread public discomfort and mistrust in the entire electoral processes,” the EC said.

It said the EC adopted an IT platform for release of voter turnout data in 2014. This reflected the data captured through non-statutory sources and fed in by data operators. A sector magistrate, who is responsible for eight to 10 polling stations, has been given additional responsibility to collect voter turnout data in percentages from polling stations. This information is collected orally or through WhatsApp/SMS. It added that the Voter Turnout app provides tentative or provisional data.

With each Lok Sabha seat having 2,000 to 3,000 booths, it takes time for the polling parties to return to the EVM Strong Room, where the constituency’s Returning Officer is usually located.

“The booths may be at far off places from the strong room. In certain constituencies, in some areas, sometimes it takes a lot of time to bring the sealed EVMs, copies of original Form 17C etc by each of the Presiding Officer of every booth to the strong room.”

When the parties return, the focus is on completing the statutory tasks. The EVMs and original records are placed in the strong room and sealed in the presence of the candidates and their representatives.

Hitting out at the petitioner, the EC reply said the plea was based on baseless allegations.

“…there are also certain elements and vested interests who keep on throwing baseless and false allegations, creating (an) unwarranted atmosphere of suspicion – in the close proximity of time of conduct of every election by the Election Commission of India, to somehow discredit the same. It is most humbly submitted that there is a consistent malafide campaign/design/efforts to keep on raising suspicion and doubt in every possible manner and by misleading assertions and baseless allegations regarding the conduct of elections by the Election Commission of India,” the EC said.

It said the main petition in the matter was filed in 2019 and that the EC had already filed its counter-affidavit on April 15, 2022, to which no rejoinder had been filed. Now, ADR had moved an intervening application while the 2024 Lok Sabha elections were underway.

“The obvious design was to not raise the issue before the start of the election but to keep it pending and suddenly raise it after the commencement of elections… the present petition/application is based on surmise and conjectures and fails to appreciate the fundamental difference that the voter turnout data is facilitative and a transparency initiative of the Commission in addition to extant statutory design of providing exact turnout data of each polling booth to the polling agents of the candidates,” the EC said.

Meanwhile, the Congress Wednesday raised concern over the “delay” in releasing turnout data.

“Voters are worried about the strange goings on in the @ECISVEEP through the four phases of voting. First, the Election Commission takes 10-11 days to bring out the final figure of voting and then the difference between real time data and final figure turns out to be 1.7 crore votes. This is truly unprecedented. Unanswered questions about the missing EVMs are also very worrying,” Congress leader Pawan Khera said in a post on X.

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