A ballot bailout?

The debate over Electronic Voting Machines just refuses to die down.

Published: 06th May 2018 02:29 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th May 2018 02:29 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

The debate over Electronic Voting Machines just refuses to die down. With the 2019 Lok Sabha elections looming, many of Tamil Nadu’s political parties demand that the ECI revert to the ballot box on grounds that EVMs are vulnerable to tampering

CHENNAI: Eighteen years after the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) were introduced in the country, questions still persist as to whether or not they are tamper-proof.The controversy surrounding voting machines has failed to die down. As political parties prepare for 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the principal opposition party Congress reopened the issue by demanding that the country revert to ballot papers.

The All India Congress Committee (AICC) in its plenary session adopted a resolution asking the Election Commission of India (ECI) to revert to ballot papers to ensure credibility of the election process. The Nationalist Congress Party, Samajwadi party are just some of the other parties that have made this demand. The AICC resolution came a year after 16 political parties urged the EC to revert to ballot paper.

Techies back ballot papers

The Election Commission started using EVMs in 2000. Within a year, late AIADMK general secretary J Jayalalithaa moved the Madras High Court seeking a directive to ECto refrain from using EVMs for the 2001 Assembly elections. She raised the same issue in 2009 stating that some developed countries had reverted to ballot system of voting due to irregularities in EVMs.

Interestingly, tech-professionals agree. GB Ram Prakash, founder of Tech For People, a non-profit organisation working to find solutions to social issues through technology, backs ballot papers. “I say EVMs currently being used are not the best.  The Easter Egg process can manipulate the inside equipment of EVMs,” he says.

Ruling out hacking of EVMs, he says chips used in EVMs are manufactured abroad and can be manipulated at the time of manufacturing. “Any foreign agency which does not like democracy to flourish in India, can manipulate the chips,” he says. “Through the Easter Egg process, one can ensure variation in the number of votes for a particular party in a particular booth,” he claims.

The Easter Egg process

“For example, in a constituency, if three candidates — A, B and C — are contesting and the purpose is to make B win the election, the chip can be manipulated in a way that whenever A and C get more votes, the Easter Egg will steal that vote and transfer it as the vote for candidate B. As long as candidate B is scoring higher number of votes, the Easter Egg won’t work. But when B starts getting fewer votes than A and C, it would start stealing the votes for candidate. Easter Eggs are secret code responses that occur as a result of an undocumented set of commands which are written and burnt inside the chip by unauthorised developers.”

However, former Chief Electoral Officer Naresh Gupta rubbishes these allegations as ‘figment of imagination’. “The EVMs are manufactured by Central government undertakings. At the time of manufacturing, no one knows which machine will go to which State and constituency and polling station.  The question of all votes falling to a particular candidate cannot arise because at the time of manufacturing no one knows which candidate will stand first, second, third in the order in the EVMs,” he says.“Before the commencement of polling, a mock poll will be held in the presence of agents of all political parties. If there is anything wrong, the machine would show it at that time itself,” Gupta says, adding that EVMs are the safest.

The matter of money

But are EVMs more economical? Ram Prakash counters. “Now, in Karnataka, they are introducing N3 type of EVMs. In these machines, the storage capacity of number of votes has come down. A few years ago, some 3,400 votes could be stored in a machine. Now, it has shrunk to 1,800. Considering the average life of an EVM and the total number of votes stored during this period, money spent on each vote comes to around `15 whereas if we store the votes in a ballot paper, the cost would be around 60 paise per vote,” he says.

The short term solution to this problem is to have audit of all Voter Verifiable Paper Trail Audit (VVPAT), a paper slip generated bearing name and symbol of the candidate along with recording of  vote in Control Unit, rather than doing it on random sample method. Audit should meet 100 per cent accuracy with zero tolerance (even a difference of 12 votes between VVPAT and EVM will result in one per cent variation per machine because only 1200 can be recorded in one EVM machine). The long term solution lies in making voting a tangible process — that is reverting to ballot paper, Ram Prakash says.

Preference for paper

In March last, the ECI categorically said that EVMs cannot be compared with machines of other countries because most of the systems used in other countries are computer-based with internet connectivity. EVMs in India are protected to prevent any tampering. The programme is burnt into a One Time Programmable (OTP)/ Masked chip so that it cannot be altered or tampered. Further, these machines are not networked either by wire or wirelessly to any other machine or system and hence, there is no possibility of its data corruption, the body said.

However, political parties doubt these claims. TKS Elangovan, DMK spokesperson, says his party is yet to take a stand on this issue. He said despite the directive  from the Supreme Court that VVPAT machines should be kept along with all EVMs, it has not been done so far to ensure transparency in the polling process. “The doubts raised from various quarters and continuous reports about difference of votes during polling and counting is making us rethink our stand,’ he said.

VCK general secretary D Ravikumar opposes EVMs. “Voting machine does not guarantee the electoral democracy enshrined in the Constitution. When political parties are against it, why should it be imposed on the people?  How can I repose faith the in the statement of EC which cannot hold free and fair elections in a single constituency? Using EVMs is tampering with the Constitution. VCK has been reiterating the demand for reverting to the ballot paper for a long time,” Ravikumar said.

AIADMK spokesperson Marudhu Azhaguraj says, “If Mangalyaan rocket can be operated through a system placed thousands of miles away from Mars, why can’t the machine placed in the next room be remote-controlled? In a country like India which is corruption-ridden, ballot paper system is the best. I believe registering my vote by seeing the symbol in the ballot paper and putting it into the box is the safest method.”

CPI national secretary D Raja says, “EVMs are manufactured by public sector undertakings.  But the semiconductor chips used in the machines are imported. There are people who question the programming of the EVMs. So, EC should act with an open mind to reinforce the faith in EVMs.”
TK Rangarajan, CPM MP, differs. “Only when democratic consciousness among people increases, any electoral malpractice can be checked. Reverting to ballot paper won’t help us,” he argues. Referring to incidents of EVMs malfunctioning, he says, ‘’The problem starts when a new machine is replaced without proper prior check up.

Fraud is committed in the spare and not in the first machine. It happened in West Bengal and it was seen in Tripura. So, when the EVMs are malfunctioning, fresh EVMs should be allowed only after a formal check and for these booths, polling time should be extended, he says.
Sudarshan Padmanabhan, coordinator, Tamil Nadu Election Watch (Association of Democratic Reforms) says allegations against EVMs are raised for political reasons. “Reverting to ballot paper is a meaningless suggestion. Just think how much of wood will be required to print ballot papers for 100 crore voters. Across the world, many countries receive electronic devices from some other country and there is nothing wrong in importing the chips with security restrictions.”

Electronic Voting Machines —The story so far

Election Commission mooted the idea of using EVMs in 1977 to avoid problems associated with ballot papers and to remove the possibility of casting invalid votes.

The law was amended in December 1988 by inserting a new section 61A in the Representation of the People Act empowering EC to use EVMs. The amendment came into force from March 15, 1989.
Central Government appointed the Electoral Reforms Committee in January, 1990 and it constituted a technical Expert Committee for the evaluation of EVMs.  The committee unanimously recommended in April, 1990 the use of EVMs.

Since 2000, EVMs have been used in more than 110 general elections to State Assemblies and three general elections to Lok Sabha in 2004, 2009 & 2014.

The issue of possible tampering of EVM had been raised before various high courts since 2001. All the high courts, had held that EVMs were credible, reliable and totally tamper proof. The Supreme Court dismissed appeals filed by some petitioners against the orders of High Courts.

It is admitted before various courts that the data or technique brought in use in EVMs in India were not subject to piracy as nobody knows anything about the contents of any type or has any unauthorised or free access to EVMs.

The suspicions on EVMs were raised again by political parties after 2009 Lok Sabha elections stating that EVMs were not foolproof and provide scope for manipulation. However, no specific allegation was raised nor could they prove it before any court.

However, some activists approached the Supreme Court in 2009 which advised them to go to EC. EC threw an open challenge to anyone to demonstrate how EVMs could be tampered with. No one could demonstrate any tampering.

The EC, based on consultation with political parties, in 2010 considered to explore use of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) with a view to enhancing transparency.

In June 2014, the EC proposed to implement VVPAT at every polling station in the next 2019 Lok Sabha elections and asked for funds of `3174 crore from the Central government. The Supreme Court also permitted the EC to implement VVPATs in phased manner.

In a case pending before the Supreme Court, ECI last year intimated the court that it would get the requisite number of VVPATs manufactured within 30 months of the release of funds by
the government.

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  • D Pullen

    EC always take shelter under the argument "The question of all votes falling to a particular candidate cannot arise because at the time of manufacturing no one knows which candidate will stand first
    4 months ago reply