Uploading Form 17C on website can lead to ‘mischief’, mistrust: EC tells Supreme Court

The top court had on Friday directed the EC to upload polling station-wise voter turnout data on its website within 48 hours of polling for each phase of ongoing Lok Sabha polls.

BySouth First Desk

Published May 23, 2024 | 12:03 AMUpdatedMay 23, 2024 | 9:50 AM

ECI

The Election Commission of India (ECI) on Wednesday, 22 May, informed the Supreme Court that uploading Form 17C – the official record of votes polled- on its website could lead to “mischief and vitiation of entire electoral space”.

The commission expressed its concerns about the possibility of images being morphed, which can create “widespread discomfort and mistrust”.

The EC also dismissed as false and misleading the allegation that the first two phases of the Lok Sabha elections saw an increase of “5-6 percent” in the voter turnout data released on the day of polling and in the subsequent press releases for each of the two phases.

The ECI argued that Form 17C, which is currently stored securely in the Strong Room and only accessible to polling agents whose signatures it bears, is designed to maintain a secure and traceable record of the polling process.

“At the moment, the original Form 17C is only available in the Strong Room and a copy only with the polling agents whose signature it bears. Therefore, there is a one-to-one relationship between each Form 17C and its possessor,” the commission told the top court.

The Supreme Court had on Friday sought a detailed response from the ECI after hearing the plea filed by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).

It directed the Commission to upload polling station-wise voter turnout data on its website within 48 hours of polling for each phase of ongoing Lok Sabha polls.

The top court is set to hear the matter on the 24 May.

Also Read: Over 85,000 votes difference between approximate turnout and final polling data

‘Will facilitate tampering’

The commission in its response argued that making these forms publicly accessible online would therefore facilitate tampering and would undermine the integrity of the electoral processes.

“A wholesome disclosure of Form 17C is amenable to mischief and vitiation of the entire electoral space,” the ECI stated.

“Indiscriminate disclosure and public posting on the website increase the possibility of images being morphed, including the counting results, which can create widespread public discomfort and mistrust in the entire electoral processes,” the commission said in its 225-page affidavit.

It said the petitioner NGO ‘Association of Democratic Reforms’ has failed to mention a single instance where candidates or voters had filed an election petition on the basis of the allegations raised by the petitioner with respect to the Lok Sabha election in 2019.

“This indicates that the allegation of discrepancies in voter turnout data made by the petitioner in the main petition as well as the present application is misleading, false and based on mere suspicion,” it said.

The ECI further stated that the existing legal framework only permits the provision of Form 17C to polling agents. The rules do not support giving this form to any other entity, and general disclosure to the public is not contemplated by rules, it said.

The ECI also explained the procedural safeguards in place to ensure the security of Form 17C.

Also Read: Understanding vote-counting process in Indian elections

Ensuring security of election data

After polling concludes, the original form is submitted to the Returning Officer (RO) and stored securely in the Strong Room along with electronic voting machines (EVMs) and other critical election materials.

This process is designed to maintain the integrity and security of the election data.

“The legal regime with regard to Form 17C is peculiar. While it authorizes the polling agent to get a copy of Form 17C at the close of the poll, a general disclosure as sought by the petitioner is not provided in the statutory framework,” the ECI argued.

“The rule position regarding Form 17C is very clear. After the end of the poll, when the polling party submits the form to the RO, the RO must ensure that along with the EVM and other materials, Form 17C in original is safely stored in the Strong Room,” the commission said.

The ECI stressed that introducing an additional responsibility to scan Form 17C before it is stored would jeopardize the statutory priority and place an undue burden on the polling parties and the RO Reception Centre.

The plea

On 17 May, the top court had sought a response within a week from the Election Commission on a plea by an NGO seeking a direction to upload polling station-wise voter turnout data on its website within 48 hours of the conclusion of polling for each phase of the Lok Sabha elections.

The ADR had filed an interim application in its 2019 PIL seeking directions to the poll panel that “scanned legible copies of Form 17C Part-I (Account of Votes Recorded)” of all polling stations be uploaded immediately after the polls.

It said the plea was filed to ensure that the democratic process is not subverted by electoral irregularities.

“The voter turnout data for the first two phases of the ongoing 2024 Lok Sabha elections published by ECI on 30 April has been published after 11 days of the first phase of polling… on 19 April and four days after the second phase of polling… on 26 April.

“The data, as published by the ECI in its press release dated 30 April, 2024, shows a sharp increase (by about 5-6 percent) as compared to the initial percentages announced by ECI as of 7 pm on the day of polling,” the plea claimed.

The petition said the “inordinate” delay in the release of the final voter turnout data, coupled with the unusually high revision has raised concerns and public suspicion regarding the correctness of the said data.

The non-release of the absolute number of votes polled coupled with the “unreasonable delay” in the release of votes polled data has led to apprehensions in the mind of the electorate about the sharp increase between initial data and data released on 30 April, it said.

(Edited by Shauqueen Mizaj)