Poor vote-getters blame the tools

Criticisms of the reliability of the Indian electronic voting machine are unwarranted

March 27, 2017 12:02 am | Updated 12:17 am IST

The losers are at it again, blaming the electronic voting machine (EVM) for their electoral defeat . Of course, this is nothing new. Every time a party has a rough time in an election, the easiest way out for its representatives to console themselves is to blame the machine. This is a blame game indulged in periodically, notwithstanding the fact that the Election Commission of India (ECI) has time and again demonstrated, through increased and transparent measures, the reliability and fool-proof nature of the EVM.

How it works

As usual, with EVMs being blamed after the results of five State elections were declared recently, the ECI issued a detailed press note reiterating that EVMs are standalone machines and are not networked either by wire or by wireless to any other machine or system. Hence, they cannot be influenced or manipulated by signals from mobile phones or any other source. The software in the machine is burnt into a one-time programmable chip or masked chip and can never be altered or tampered with. The source code of the software is not handed over to any outsider. The ECI also cited judgments of different High Courts and the Supreme Court of India that upheld the reliability of EVMs.

The ECI has prescribed a series of steps in its standard operating procedures to enhance transparency and provide an opportunity for political parties and candidates to participate in testing the reliability of the machines. During the first-level of testing before the machines are allotted to various constituencies from storage points, party representatives are invited. They can select at random 5% of the machines in which up to 1,000 votes will be polled to demonstrate the reliability and fidelity of the machines. A computer programme allocates, at random, machines to constituencies. The second-level of testing is done when, from the constituency headquarters, machines are allocated — again at random, using a computer programme — to polling stations. At this juncture, the candidates — who by now come on the scene — are allowed to test the machines at random. The serial number of the machine sent to each polling station is shared with the candidates, who can pass on this information to their representatives in the respective polling stations.


Finally, before the start of the polling process on the day of the election, each presiding officer conducts a mock poll to demonstrate the “correctness” the machine in recording votes. When absurd allegations were floated that the machine has been programmed to record votes to the same candidate who gets the first 50 votes, the ECI mandated using 100 votes in the mock poll on polling day.

Even then such elaborate measures have not curbed post-poll enthusiasm for manufacturing absurd-in-the-extreme excuses in explaining one’s poor electoral performance.

The ‘other countries’ excuse

An oft-fired standard, but blunt, weapon employed in the losers’ armoury is the reference to names of some countries where electronic voting has been given up. The Netherlands and Germany are cited without either knowing or deliberately concealing the vital fact that in the former it was a networkable PC-type of machine running on OS, while in the latter, their Supreme Court had disallowed electronic voting because their law did not have the enabling provision. Such a situation arose in India too when in 1984, the Supreme Court barred the use of EVMs as the law at that time had provision for use of only ballot paper. That in the U.S. such a networkable DRS (Direct Recording System) machine is still used extensively across the length and breadth of the country, with no significant doubts expressed about its fidelity, is conveniently glossed over. It is worth recalling that the Bush-Gore election spat, in 2000, was over the “misreading” of votes recorded on ballot papers, and not about votes polled in DRS machines! In the post-2009 general election brouhaha here, some experts were brought in to trash EVMs, but in a meeting in Chennai, which this writer attended, the presenter, an academic from the U.S., conceded that standalone, non-networked machines such as Indian EVMs cannot be interfered with and are not vulnerable.

Results and the voter

But despite the comprehensive and transparent measures put into operation, idle minds have not stopped manufacturing wild stories. One such red herring is that of the Trojan horse or secret programme built into the software that will transfer all votes to a favourite party. Those who make this allegation are either ignorant or deliberately indulging in creating a hype. The fact is that the software, once fused into the EVM chip is unalterable, and the machine cannot be manipulated by sending messages from external sources. Therefore, for this allegation to come true, the software should, ab initio , have been suitably programmed to enable such preferential recording of votes. This is impossible because machines of a different vintage are used in an election.


For instance, in the five State elections, machines manufactured between 2006 to 2012, were in use, with those of 2007, 2008 and 2009 vintage accounting for over 75% of the machines. Further, the position of a party candidate in the EVM is decided alphabetically going by the name of the candidate in the respective State’s official (vernacular) language, and not by the name of the party. So, the position on the ballot unit of a candidate with a name starting with the letter ‘A’ would be first and his own party’s candidate whose name starts with ‘Z’ would be towards the end, even if his party’s name starts with the letter ‘A’. The machines of 2006 to 2009 vintage would have seen service in at least three elections held between 2006 and 2014, prior to being deployed in 2017. Taking U.P. as the case in point, the Bahujan Samaj Party, in 2007, and the Samajwadi Party (SP), in 2012, did well in the Assembly elections. In 2017, it was the BJP. In the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress and the SP did well in 2009, and the BJP in 2014. This should convince any sceptic that the voters, and not the machines, decide the outcome. Even a super-intelligent programmer cannot visualise in 2007 or 2008 or 2009, at the time of manufacture, of where the machines will be used and what the position of a particular party’s candidate will be in the balloting units of different constituencies and accordingly ‘tweak’ the programme to favour a particular party. Such idle talk should be dismissed with the contempt it deserves.


Paper audit

The introduction of VVPAT or Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail is certainly a step in the right direction, further strengthening transparency. But will full coverage with VVPT, expected by 2019, stop allegations against EVMs as hoped by former Chief Election Commissioners with touching faith? Hardly, if one goes by the answer given by a well-known leader who, when questioned about his outburst now against the EVM as against his silence after his party’s runaway victory two years ago, claimed that his over-confident opponent may not have attempted manipulation of EVMs then! Nobody can underestimate our political class’s ability to come out with the most imaginative of answers when it comes to explaining their failure at the hustings.

Theoretically, there are three entities which or who can be blamed. First, voters for having rejected them, but then no party would dare blame them for fear of annoying and alienating them forever. One can blame one’s own poor leadership or the incompetence of party functionaries, but that level of candour is unknown. That leaves only one entity, the EVM, to be demonised, VVPAT or no VVPAT. Nobody has so far succeeded in waking up a person who pretends to sleep.

N. Gopalaswami is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India

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