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Updated: December 21, 2010 10:54 IST

Questioning the reliability of EVMs

Suresh Nambath
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India's polling process is getting longer and longer due to the steadily increasing size of the electorate and the heightened security concerns. But the counting of votes, which used to take several days to complete in the previous decades, now takes less than 24 hours. This was made possible by the induction of an electronic device into the polling process by the Election Commission of India. The appliance, Electronic Voting Machine (EVM), has survived legal challenges, since the time it came to be introduced in a by-election in 1982. But political parties that end up on the losing side tend to cast doubts on the reliability of these machines.

Over the years, the ECI has tried to remove such apprehensions, but not all have been fully convinced. Among them is Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy, a five-time Member of Parliament, who has been persistently opposing the EVM's use in elections on various counts.

Electronic Voting Machines: Unconstitutional and Tamperable, a volume edited by Swamy jointly with S. Kalyanaraman, a former senior executive of the Asian Development Bank, is a collection of papers that raises several questions about the EVM's reliability and seeks to make a case for a more transparent, verifiable voting process.

Manipulate

Swamy and Kalyanaraman insist that the “most deadly way to hack Indian EVMs is by inserting a chip with Trojan inside the display section of the Control unit.” This, they say, requires access to the EVM for just two minutes. Such a chip could manipulate the results and give out “fixed” results on the screen. A large number of people who are outside the ambit and control of the Election Commission have access to the EVMs at different stages: the manufacturing companies; the foreign companies that supply micro controllers; and the private players involved in maintenance of the EVMs. Therefore, the authors contend, these machines are vulnerable to tampering.

Roxna Swamy argues against the use of the EVMs in the present form on the ground that they preclude physical check of individual votes and suggests the provision of a paper trail in them — a proof in paper that can be verified by the voter at the time of casting the vote. This would address most of the objections raised against the EVMs. In the event of a dispute about the result, the paper ballots can be hand-counted. However, allowing for a paper trail will mean a huge jump in costs and in the average time taken for casting the vote. And, unless some reasonable restrictions are placed on a candidate's entitlement to demand a recount, this could well neutralise all the advantages of the EVMs while trying to remove the disadvantages.

International experience

Subramanian Swamy, however, is generally suspicious of the machines; he insists that all computers can be hacked. “We are not unwilling to accept this security risk in banking, shopping and e-mailing since the fraud is at the micro-level, and of individual consequence which in most cases is rectifiable. But the ballot box needs to be perfectly safeguarded because of the monumental consequence of a rigged or faulty vote recording,” he says.

The book cites international experience with such machines to bolster the argument for paper ballots. Germany's Supreme Court ruled that e-voting was unconstitutional because the average citizen could not be expected to understand the exact steps involved in the recording and tallying of votes, and the Netherlands banned the voting machines on the grounds of lack of transparency and risk of eavesdropping.

In his paper, Kalyanaraman calls for periodic and regular systems-audit of the EVMs, which, he says, is the global norm for all computer networks to ensure “security, authentication, accessibility and prevention of frauds.” However, it is not as if the age of paper ballots was all about transparency and fair voting. Stuffing of ballot boxes and booth capturing were not uncommon in the pre-EVM era. Of course, such malpractices did not automatically end with the introduction of the EVMs.

If recent elections have been freer and fairer, it is in a large measure due to the greater vigilance by the Election Commission, and tight monitoring of the entire election process. Safeguarding the polling process is the way forward, and not dumping the EVMs altogether.

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