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Supreme Court instructs ECI to keep Symbol Loading Units in strong rooms after elections: Read what these devices are and how the order will impact polls

Symbol Loading Units are used by Electronics Corporation of India and Bharat Heavy Electricals engineers to load candidate names and symbols into the VVPAT machines before the elections. At present they are reused across different phases

In a significant verdict, the Supreme Court of India on 26 April rejected pleas to revert to paper ballot-based elections and 100% matching of VVPAT slips with EVM results. The apex court ruled that the current system of voting in Indian elections with EVMs will continue, satisfied with the safety features of the system as explained by the Election Commission of India.

However, the Supreme Court added one more feature to the system, as it ordered that the Symbol Loading Units should be sealed after symbol loading of VVPATs to be done after 1 May 2024, and they should be kept in a strong room with EVMs for at least 45 days following the post results. The court ordered that candidates or their agents will sign on the seals of the SLUs, like the current practice with EVMs and VVPATs. Now, what is this Symbol Loading Unit and what does it do? Here is a short explanation.

The VVPAT machine is an additional feature added to the EVM which prints the name, symbol and serial number of the candidate after a vote is cast on the ballot unit. The EVM control unit and ballot unit actually do not contain any information regarding candidates, the system records the votes only against the serial number. However, with the introduction of the VVPAT, there is a requirement to load the candidate information in the system.

This task is done with the Symbol Loading Unit, a small device which loads the information of the candidates into the VVPAT machine. Therefore, while the voters see three units at the polling booth, the EVM control unit, ballot unit and the VVPAT printer, there is a fourth device involved in the process, the Symbol Loading Unit. However, this device is not attached to the VVPAT during voting, it is only used to load the candidate names and symbols to the VVPAT machines ahead of the polls.

The VVPAT machines store the candidate names and image files of their symbols, along with the serial number, and this needs to be loaded into the machine before an election. The Symbol Loading Unit works as an interface to complete this task. The SLU is first connected to a computer to receive the required names and symbol image files. After the files are downloaded into the SLU from the computer, it is disconnected from the computer and connected to the VVPAT using a dedicated cable and port.

After that, by selecting the relevant options from the menu, the names and symbols are loaded onto the VVPAT machines. After the loading, the SLU is disconnected to the VVPAT, and is used to repeat the process with other VVPATs, using the data already stored in it. Afer the loading, tests are done to ensure that the machine is printing the slips correctly.

While every polling booth requires a VVPAT machine, a single SLU is used to load symbols into several VVPATs. As all booths in a constituency have the same candidates with the same serial numbers, the same SLU can be used for all the VVPATs in a constituency. As per ECI data provided to the Supreme Court, the poll body has 4800 SLUs at present.

The Symbol Loading Units are manufactured by two PSUs, Electronics Corporation of India and Bharat Heavy Electricals, and the engineers of the companies visit the election offices carrying the SLUs ahead of the polls to load the symbols. Before the preparation of the EVMs for polling, the SLUs are kept in the custody of the concerned Returning Officer.

The symbol loading process is done by the ECIL/BEL engineers in the election offices in the presence of representatives of recognised national and state-level political parties. At the time of loading the symbols, a monitor is also attached to the SLU, which displays the symbols being installed, which can be viewed by the candidate agents. After everything is set up, the system is verified by pressing every button on the ballot unit once. Then, the EVM sets are kept in strong rooms before they are dispatched to the polling stations ahead of the election.

On the other hand, after the process is complete, the SLUs are kept in the safe custody of the District Election Officer. A day after the polls, the units are returned to the engineers of the respective manufacturer, Electronics Corporation of India or Bharat Heavy Electricals, as per current provisions. This is done so that the SLUs can be taken by the engineers to the constituencies that go for polling in the subsequent phases, to complete the symbol-loading process. This way, the ECI reuses the same SLUs for multiple constituencies in different phases of elections.

However, now this will change after 1 May, and SLUs will have to be kept in strong rooms for 45 days. Now the SLUs can’t be handed over to the manufacturer’s engineers for the next phase of polls.

This will mean that the ECI will require a larger number of SLUs, as they can’t be reused now in different constituencies. At present, Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) has 1,400 SLUs and Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL) has 3,400 SLUs.

Elections to 191 constituencies will be completed by today, while polls will take place in 352 constituencies in the next 5 phases after 1 May. Multiple SLUs are used to load symbols into the huge number of VVPATs in multiple election offices in each constituency.

For the current Lok Sabha polls, the ECI has set up over 10.5 lakh polling stations in the country, each having multiple polling booths. As per the ECI, over 55 lakh EVMs have been deployed for the polls. This translates to over 10,000 EVMs per constituency. Apart from use in polls, the poll body also keeps a sufficient number of EVMs ready for replacement in case of EVM failure or other issues.

Therefore, it is not known whether 4,800 SLUs will be enough for the ECI to conduct the next 5 phases of the elections.

While the Supreme Court rejected the plea to count all VVPAT slips, the court also asked the ECI to look into the possibility of an electronic machine for counting the (VVPAT) paper slips. The court further asked if a bar code can be printed along with the name and symbol of a candidate, to speed up a probable electronic counting process.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Raju Das
Raju Das
Corporate Dropout, Freelance Translator

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