Supreme Court weighs landmark decision on electoral transparency amid Calls for public access to polling data

At a hearing on Friday, a vacation bench comprising Justices Dipankar Datta and S.C. Sharma took up an application filed by the NGO Association for Democratic Reforms.

India’s Supreme Court is weighing a pair of petitions that could dramatically increase transparency around the country’s mammoth electoral process by forcing authorities to publish detailed, polling station-level voter turnout data.

At a hearing on Friday, a vacation bench comprising Justices Dipankar Datta and S.C. Sharma took up an application filed by the NGO Association for Democratic Reforms. The group seeks a directive instructing the Election Commission of India (ECI) to upload images of Form 17C – containing booth-wise voting figures – on its website after all future polls.

A separate but related 2019 petition filed by Trinamool Congress leader Mahua Moitra, alleging discrepancies in voter turnout data published after that year’s general elections, was also listed for consideration by the court.

Form 17C provides a granular breakdown of the number of votes recorded at each individual polling station. While these records are currently only handed over to polling agents representing candidates, the ADR argues making them publicly accessible is vital for ensuring greater accountability and protecting the integrity of elections.

However, the Election Commission has steadfastly opposed the demand, claiming no legal provision mandates releasing such operational information to the general public.

In an affidavit, the poll panel warned that unrestricted access to booth-level voting data, which could potentially allow the profiling of communities or localities, poses a risk of “mischief” and undermining faith in the electoral process.

Previous court rulings have backed the EC’s stance, with judges expressing reservations over exposing election staff to potential intimidation or undue scrutiny by releasing low-level voter data.

Nevertheless, the ADR has found an ally in Moitra, whose 2019 petition claimed to uncover inexplicable discrepancies in constituency-level voter turnout statistics. She has accused the Commission of a lack of transparency that enables mistakes or manipulation.

While India’s nationwide “festival of democracy” is internationally acclaimed for its staggering scale and complex logistics, the pushback highlights growing demands to update protocols and usher in modern accountability norms.

With allegations of voter suppression and demands for verifiable electoral data intensifying globally, the Supreme Court’s decision could have a profound ripple effect – determining whether the world’s largest democracy ushers in a new era of transparency or remains insulated from heightened public scrutiny.