Uploading of Form 17C data on number of votes polled can lead to mischief, Election Commission tells SC

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"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 EC", court has been told

Raising issue of maintainability of a plea for uploading polling station wise voters turnout data, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has contended before the Supreme Court that changing the procedure in the last two phases of polls would amount to interference in election process and would be in teeth of Article 329(b) of the Constitution.

In an affidavit, the poll panel said uploading of Form 17C (account of votes polled at each polling booth) on website can lead to mischief and there are possibilities of images being morphed, which can create widespread discomfort and mistrust.

ECI added there is no legal mandate to provide the Form 17C to any person other than the candidate or his agent.  "The petitioner is trying to create an entitlement when none exists in the law by way of filing an application in the middle of the election period," it said on ADR's application.

Acting on an application by NGO Association for Democratic Reforms, the Supreme Court on May 17 issued notice to the Election Commission and sought a response from it as to why Form 17C can't be uploaded on the website.

In its response, the EC said the writ petition in the matter has been pending since 2019 but the instant application has been filed in the midst of polls to "create prejudice, suspicion, doubts and integrity of the process to gain support for campaign from EVMs to ballot papers".

It also pointed out a separate bench had on April 26, 2024 dismissed a petition for complete cross verification of VVPATs with EVMs counts and the plea with regard to Form 17C was raised then.

"There are also certain elements and vested interests who keep on throwing baseless and false allegations, creating unwarranted atmosphere of suspicion in the close proximity of time of conduct of every election by the Election Commission, to somehow discredit it," the affidavit said.

The Constitutional body further said as per the law enacted by the Parliament in its legislative wisdom, the EC has been mandated to provide Form 17C (Part 1) to polling agents of the candidates only under Rule 49S of the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961 and not in any other manner. Further, Part II of the Form 17C is signed by the Counting Supervisor and counter-signed by the Returning Officer as mandated under Rule 56C of Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, top court has been informed.

The EC also termed allegation on increase of final voter turnout data in first two phases as "misleading and unsubstantiated".

The apex court is scheduled to hear the matter on May 24.

A CJI DY Chandrachud led bench had taken up the application a few days back after an urgent mentioning was done by Advocate Prashant Bhushan appearing for ADR.

Senior Advocate Maninder Singh on behalf of ECI claimed that the application was based on absolutely false allegations. "You can't raise the issue of 17C one after the another..Justice Khanna and Datta have already dealt with this issue..", court was told.

Singh referred to the April 26, 2024 judgment of the Supreme Court whereby the pleas for 100% verification of EVM and VVPAT was refused.

Bhushan responded to this submission saying that the said issue was not raised in the petition.

"Direct the Election Commission of India to provide tabulated polling station-wise data in absolute figures of the number of votes polled as recorded in Form 17C Part- I after each phase of polling in the on-going 2024 Lok Sabha elections and also a tabulation of constituency wise figures of voter turnout in absolute numbers in the on-going 2024 Lok Sabha elections..", the application filed by Association for Democratic Reforms states.

A further direction has been sought by ADR for ECI to upload on its website scanned legible copies of Form 17C Part- II which contains the candidate-wise result of counting after the compilation of results of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

"The ECI not releasing absolute number of votes polled, coupled with the unreasonable delay in 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 30.04.2024....", the application states.

Court has further been told that under the Rules of 1961, polling station is mandated to give Form 17C to the polling agents so this information is readily available by the time of close of poll on the day of polling.