Is there a case to ban electronic voting system?
The election results and allegations of tampering with Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) have of late become synonymous with each other. It has become a handy tool in the hands of the ones losing election to blame it on manipulation of EVMs. There is a dichotomous situation of sorts which comes into play after every poll result. The political parties praise the electronic voting and counting system when they win and the same outfits criticise after losing a subsequent election and this has become a strong argument for the Election Commission of India to defend use of EVMs.
Often the opponents of EVMs that include some NGOs and individuals as well apart from the sundry political parties cite instances of many western countries having banned the electronic gadget. So this becomes the basis for their argument to seek ban on EVMs and revert to traditional voting through ballot papers.
There were no surprises when allegations of EVM tampering were levelled afresh by BSP chief Mayawati and Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav after their dismal performance in the just concluded civic body polls in Uttar Pradesh. In fact, they only reiterated what they had alleged after a similar loss of face in the state Assembly elections not so long ago. This has been strongly refuted by Chief Election Commissioner A K Joti though he said that the civic body elections were conducted by the state election machinery and not the Election Commission of India.
This can be a precursor to Gujarat Assembly elections as certain political quarters have already started suspecting that the ruling BJP, at the Centre and in Gujarat, might resort to manipulating the machines to win at all costs. Joti has dismissed these suspicions and clarified that Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines will be used along with EVMs in all 50,264 voting booths of 182 constituencies in the state to keep a paper trail of the votes cast.” This measure comes in the backdrop of Samajwadi Party chief’s claim that BJP’s winning percentage would decrease if polls are held through ballot papers.
Yadav based his claim by stating that “BJP says a total of 16 elections have been held in UP, out of which 14 were won by BJP, 2 by BSP and Congress-SP disappeared. We say that BJP’s winning percentage is 46 percent wherever polls were conducted via EVMs and 15 percent when it was done via ballot papers”.
There have been allegations during the UP civic elections that on whatever symbol a voter presses the button but the light glows only on BJP’s lotus symbol. Such complaints were made even during Assembly elections in various states but nothing conclusive emerged to substantiate the allegations.
After much dilly-dallying the ECI had held a hackthone by giving a chance to the political parties to hack the EVMs being used by it at the ECI headquarters. But none of them showed up. But that does not mean all doubts have been addressed by the poll panel.
Firstly, a look at why at least six European countries discontinued with EVMs. In Germany it was felt that EVMs were prone to hacking and so declared unfit for elections after being declared as unconstitutional after a complaint was brought before the German Constitutional Court which banned it.
Yet another country to ban EVMs was Netherlands. The Dutch Council took decision to impose ban on the plea that the machines lacked transparency after questions were raised on the machines’ authenticity.
Ireland spent millions of dollars on the installation of EVMs and to use them during the political elections. However, after spending more than 51 million pounds for three years, the country reverted to old system of ballots after scrapping the electronic voting system. The reason cited waslack of trust and transparency in the voting machine.
England had initiated various pilot projects on use of EVMs before actually adopting the system in the country. But it never happened. As late as in January 2016, the UK Parliament revealed that it has no plans to introduce electronic voting for statutory elections, either using electronic voting in polling booths or remotely via the internet
France had used EVMs in a national presidential primary in 2007. While the country has chosen to vote via the internet, EVMs have not been used in the country. Elections in France utilised remote Internet voting for the first time in 2003, and this idea was made a custom in 2009 as people chose the internet voting system over paper.
Italy had for the first time used Nedap voting machines in national elections in 2006 as a pilot project. The pilot project involved 3000 electors and four polling stations. However, after the pilot project was completed, the country chose to go back to paper as it is easy to manage and cheaper. The EVMs in this case were not rejected on any technical reasons or lack of reliability.
There are other countries which have backed the use of EVMs with paper ballots. In various parts of the United States of America as well as in Venezuela EVMs are used on a large scale but are backed by paper trails of the votes. This simple step helps the government to regularize and check the authenticity of votes and avoid any discrepancies.
It was after years of allegations that the Election Commission of India has also decided to use VVPATs. In fact BJP leader Dr Subramaniam Swamy, a vehement opponent of EVMs, had suggested the use of VVPATs as a safety measure while arguing before the Supreme Court seeking ban on use of EVMs.
The Apex Court in October 8, 2013, on a PIL by Swamy, had directed the EC to introduce the VVPAT system in a phased manner and achieve its full implementation by 2019. On a national level, the system was introduced in 8 of 543 parliamentary constituencies during the 2014 general elections. It was used in 516 polling stations across eight states.
The successive Chief Election Commissioners have maintained that the EVMs are tamper proof. Their common refrain is that every EVM has an identity number attached to it, which is recorded in the Election Commission’s database. This ID is cross-checked against the database when it is being transported to and from the election booth. This process is done before the counting of votes begin. The machines are guarded by central forces between the period of voting and counting, they had been stating.
Notwithstanding the ECI’s reiterations it is repeatedly being alleged that EVMs are not tamper-proof. Such allegations got a fillip after many private research units and bloggers came up with theories on how the EVMs can be hacked into.
In 2010 report by a team of experts led by Professor J Alex Halderman of University of Michigan and Indian scientist Hari Prasad cited numerous vulnerabilities with the EVM machines, especially if a malicious user had access to the EVMs in advance. “The technology’s promise was that attacks on the ballot box and dishonesty in the counting process would be more difficult. Yet we find that such attacks remain possible, while being potentially more difficult to detect,” the report stated.
Professor Halderman had further said that results could be changed in the EVM through mobile phones. He demonstrated that signals could be linked up to EVMs to get desired results. ECI denied all these allegations.
During the course of this controversy Hari Prasad, was arrested on ECI’s complaint for stealing an EVM from District Collector’s office in Mumbai. Prasad was later released after a court order where the Magistrate observed “Prasad had done a great service for the country.”
Former CEC Navin Chawla said that when political parties or candidates lose elections, they tend to blame the EVMs. When they win by virtue of the same machine, they celebrate their victories with gusto.
He said that to suggest that EVMs manufactured so many years ago could be tampered with to give a doctored result is beyond comprehension. Yet, after the 2017 UP Assembly elections, the principal parties that lost once again put the blame on EVMs.
Another former CEC SY Quraishi said, “all political parties have raised doubts over the EVMs at one time or another but kept quiet when they won instead of eating their words. It’s the voter who needs to be conveyed the facts,” he said.