Are concerns over Electronic Voting Machines valid? Indian election experts address transparency issues

Are concerns over Electronic Voting Machines valid? Indian election experts address transparency issues

By: ankita kulkarni&
March 19 2024

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Are concerns over Electronic Voting Machines valid? Indian election experts address transparency issues

(Source: Reuters/Ajay Verma/Modified by Logically Facts)



India’s Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) are once again the center of contentious debate ahead of the upcoming national polls with opposition parties staging nationwide protests alleging that the machines can be tampered with to manipulate election results.

Similar calls were made in the last general elections when various parties demanded a return to paper ballots or to improve the present Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) EVM system — a printed paper slip containing the symbol of the candidate for whom a vote has been cast that is visible to the voter for seven seconds before dropping into a sealed box. 

Demand for end-to-end verifiability

Primarily, there are concerns about how not all VVPAT slips are voter-verified since the Election Commission of India (ECI) only counts them under certain conditions — when there is no display of the result on the Control Unit, or at five randomly selected polling stations of each assembly constituency, as mandated by India’s Supreme Court. Critics call the second condition arbitrary and insufficient. 

In response to a petition filed by non-profit watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) seeking 100 percent counting of VVPAT slips, the ECI had said in the apex court that if it were to count all of the slips in every election then it would tantamount to the re-introduction of paper ballots by indirect means. Subsequently, in February, two congress leaders filed a petition seeking to include time and date on slips printed by the VVPAT machine.

So, are EVMs a solid tool for transparency in the world’s largest democracy? Or can tampering it rig election results? Logically Facts spoke to former Indian Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi, former bureaucrat M.G. Devasahayam, who has extensive experience in conducting and supervising elections, and activist and ADR founder Jagdeep Chhokar. 

Can EVMs be hacked?

S.Y. Quraishi: I have been consistently saying that they cannot be hacked and they cannot be manipulated because a lot of thought and effort has gone into its design, its manufacture, its administrative controls. About 350 crore people voted on EVMs and the transition of power has always been smooth without any question. Everybody accepts the results with grace. Debate has continued all the time, and the election commission has answered (questions) repeatedly, but yet the problem refuses to die.

Jagdeep Chhokar: EVMs, when they were originally introduced, were said to be standalone machines which were not connected to anything else. Therefore, they cannot be tampered with. But now VVPAT is connected to the control unit or the counting unit, depending on how you call it. So it is now not an EVM alone, it is an electronic voting system. And that voting system appears to be, to my mind, completely amenable to manipulation.

Can votes intended for one party be recorded for another?

Over the years, there have been numerous instances where stakeholders have demonstrated concerns about votes intended for one party being registered for another. While experts argue that there are sufficient checks and balances in place and that large-scale rigging is unlikely, some suggest that selective manipulation could occur.

S. Y. Quraishi: Occasionally we have seen that some votes were going to another party. But remember there are 20 lakh machines in operation and it happens in 1, 2, 3, 5 (cases), so to defame the entire system is irresponsible, it's wrong. Our entire system is based on suspicion that people will try to cheat and manipulate. How to stop and prevent that kind of manipulation, that is our challenge and that is how we have designed the whole thing.

Jagdeep Chhokar: You don't have to rig all 543 constituencies in the country. And rigging does not mean that one candidate gets all the votes. You don't have to make the candidate win by an overwhelming margin. Manipulating the election is not like the bad old days of stuffing ballot boxes, now you can do a strategic or selective manipulation which affects the majority in the legislature.

Is the protocol enough?

In the last few years, the commission has ordered repolling in certain areas over allegations of EVM tampering. So, what’s the protocol to minimize these risks?

M.G. Devasahayam: There are standard operating procedures and it is incumbent on the district electoral officer who is the district magistrate and who ensures that this transportation takes place as per the laid down manual. And after the completion of the polling, the polling officer is supposed to go through certain formalities and then seal these EVMs and VVPATs.

S.Y. Quraishi: On the polling day, there is a mock poll in the morning at 7:30am. All parties certify in writing that they found the machine functioning fine. So, if the machine was alright at 7:30am in the morning, how can it go wrong at 8:30am? And they were repeated mock polls and then cross-checking with the VVPAT machine. If there is a discrepancy, even in one, then the poll will be stopped and the entire process will be re-looked at.

What are the guidelines for transporting EVMs?

Some election season has also been marred by instances of violence over isolated cases of EVMs being found in the wrong hands or by spreading rumors. Like last year during the Karnataka assembly elections, when a mob toppled an officer's car under the false impression a BJP MLA was involved in taking the machine before voting closed to rig results. However, we found out that no political leader was in the car, and the officer was carrying reserve EVMs.

M.G. Devasahayam: Sometimes what happens is some kind of mischief may take place, earlier, they used to say ballot stuffing is taking place. But now the technology and communications have improved vastly. So in transportation, there appears to be not much of a scope to do mischief but we see cases of EVMs lying in somebody's house, lying in somebody's car, carried by MLA's car. So these are all odd complaints that come, but by and large, the system is okay.

S.Y. Quraishi: After the poll is over, the machine is taken to a strong room which is known to everybody and paramilitary forces accompany that vehicle and political parties are not only allowed; but they're encouraged to follow the vehicle.

Need for transparency

In January 2024, the ECI responded to the opposition INDIA bloc’s questions regarding EVMs, saying the machines withstand all tests. Critics of the current system aren’t opposed to the idea of using EVMs, but they demand more transparency. 

M.G. Devasahayam: When you go to counting, they attach the EVMs into a computer, press the button, the numbers come, they record the numbers, and declare the results. I do not know what was inside the computer, what was inside the EVM. So, the question is that the basic principles of democracy, end-to-end verifiability, is totally absent. The democratic elections must comply with the basic democracy principles of, say the voter should know that her vote was cast as intended, recorded as cast, and counted as recorded.

What’s the solution?

Jagdeep Chhokar: We have seen in the Chandigarh mayor election that ballot papers can also be manipulated by the returning officer himself. The ballot paper is not a panacea which has no problem. So my recommendation or suggestion is that the quality of the paper should be improved. The printing should stay for at least seven years. In addition to printing the name of the candidate number, party, etc, it also should print a barcode on that paper. Then these so-called slips should be counted through a machine counter which will count based on the barcode. So my proposal again is to eliminate the VVPAT, to eliminate the control unit, replace all that with a simple printer with the EVM, and the printer should have good-quality paper.

M.G. Devasahayam: All they all have to improve is the printing (of the VVPAT slip). That's all; make it slightly larger, make it in a superior paper where it stays for five years because you need to have a record.

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