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regular-article-logo Thursday, 29 February 2024

Trust but verify: Amendments for a more foolproof electronic voting machine

EVMs are carefully constructed, dependable workhorses of a democratic process. But in the face of doubts raised about them time and again, there is need for serious affirmative action by the Election Commission of India

S. Y. Quraishi Published 03.12.23, 08:14 AM
Representational image

Representational image Sourced by The Telegraph

In a while from now, the results of the latest round of Assembly elections will be with you, and the debate around the feasibility and trustworthiness of electronic voting machines (EVMs) will resume.

EVMs have been in use since 1998. No government has lasted in power right through these two-and-a-half decades. Political parties have won and lost elections at regular intervals. Governments have come and gone. If the machines were hackable, the government under which the machines were first made would not have lost elections at all. Most notably, the mighty ruling party, the BJP, lost just a few months ago in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh and, earlier, in West Bengal, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Can there be better proof?

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Prior to the introduction of EVMs, paper ballots were used. However, the electoral land-
scape was marred by various malpractices such as vote rigging, forged voting, booth capturing through muscle power, and the time-consuming process of handling paper ballots. There were also thousands of invalid votes. Additionally, the sheer volume of paper used during elections raised concerns about environmental impact and resource wastage.

In response to these challenges, the Election Commission of India (ECI) sought a more efficient and secure method for citizens to exercise their voting rights. The development of EVMs was entrusted to BEL (Bharat Electronics Limited) and ECIL (Electronics Corporation of India Limited). The inaugural use of EVMs took place in 1982 during a by-election for the North Parur Assembly constituency in Kerala, with subsequent successful trials in select constituencies in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

The positive outcomes of these experiments paved the way for the widespread adoption of EVMs. Since 1998, all state elections were held by EVMs. The pivotal decision to exclusively use EVMs for the Lok Sabha elections in 2004 marked a transformative shift, bidding farewell to the traditional paper ballot system.

The security measures implemented for EVMs operate on a comprehensive four-tier framework. It is crucial to recognise and understand these levels of security.

Technical safeguards: EVMs are exclusively manufactured by two prominent central public sector undertakings, BEL and ECIL, renowned for producing high-security defence equipment. The software employed undergoes a meticulous process, being burned onto a one-time programmable/masked chip, rendering it impervious to altera- tion or tampering. Importantly, these machines remain entirely non-networked, eliminating any wired or wireless connections with other machines or systems to preempt hacking.

Fool-proof protective custody at all stages of transportation and storage: The transportation of EVMs undergoes foolproof protective measures at every stage, from the secure storage room to the polling stations. This involves three levels of checks and three mock polls including one on poll day, all of which are conducted under the vigilant gaze of political party representatives. The entire process is documented through video recording to ensure transparency and accountability. The rooms where EVMs are stored are sealed and guarded by para- military forces round the year. No room can be opened without inviting political parties.

Independent oversight by a technical advisory committee: An autonomous technical advisory committee, comprising five professors from five different Indian Institutes of Technology, assumes the role of overseeing the complete EVM process.

Judicial review: The functioning of the ECI-EVMs has been challenged before several courts, including the Supreme Court, which, after examining technicians and computer experts, were satisfied as to the non-tamperability of the EVMs.

The highest judicial examination was done by the apex court (Subramanian Swamy vs ECI, 2013). It was contended that in order to make EVMs completely tamper-proof and to ensure transparency, a VVPAT (voter verifiable paper audit trail) is essential. The ECI informed the Supreme Court that, after an all-party meeting in October 2010 suggested introducing EVMs, it had already worked on the concept, and that its technical advisory committee had already approved the design for it on May 26, 2011, and a field test had been conducted in five climatic zones. The apex court appreciated the “pragmatism and reasonable approach” of the ECI and commented: “...we appreciate the efforts and good gesture made by (the) ECI in introducing the system”.

Coming to the conclusion that the paper trail is an “indispensable requirement of free and fair elections”, the court “directed” the Government of India to provide the requisite funds for the procurement of VVPAT machines. The court allowed the ECI to introduce the machines in phases, which was done. Since then, EVMs are being used across the country.

It’s important to have a safe paper record. “Voter verifiability” was introduced in the form of a small screen on the printer for the voter to see with her own eyes that the vote was actually going to the candidate she selected.

“Paper audit trail” is the slip printed and dropped into the sealed box which can be counted as needed. Currently, under Supreme Court order, slips from five machines per Assembly segment have to be counted randomly. Political parties have been demanding that at least 30 per cent or 50 per cent must be counted. Some demand 100 per cent count, or return to the ballot paper.

Mistrust in EVMs has been dangerously increasing. We cannot afford the loss of public trust. The Election Commission has been refusing to budge. In my view, it must call an all-party meeting to evolve a consensus. As a last resort, even if 100 per cent has to be counted to gain public trust, they should consider it. How does it matter if it takes a few extra hours or even a day? After all, the nation waits for counting for over two months from the first day of poll.

Credibility and trust are of paramount importance in a good democracy, especially one which was described by Hillary Clinton as the gold standard. I have proposed another, much easier, alternative. Like the DRS (decision review system) in cricket where both teams are allowed two appeals, let the top two runners-up in a constituency, who have the highest stake in the result, choose any two VVPATs, which they suspect, to be counted. This would serve to do away with a large sample, as only four machines per Assembly, purposively selected, would have to be counted instead of the current five, randomly selected.

I also suggest another improvement for “voter verifiability” — add two buttons on the VVPAT screen, green and red. After the voter is satisfied, let her press the green button after which the slip will get deposited in the sealed box. Otherwise, she should press the red button. If this happens, the machine will be checked thoroughly. If the fault is proven, not only will the machine be replaced, but all machines in the constituency must be checked. This is a highly unlikely scenario, but it would restore public faith in the system.

EVMs have made India a proud global leader in elections. After incorporating VVPATs, the system is now much safer. The amendments proposed will make it more foolproof.

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