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Is there a case for a relook at EVMs?

Election Commission officials demonstrate the use of EVMs and VVPAT machines in New Delhi.   | Photo Credit: Shanker Chakravarthy



In order to restore public confidence, we need to go back to paper ballots


Prashant Bhushan

Is there a case for a relook at EVMs?

Earlier we were told — and it is probably still the case — that electronic voting machines (EVMs) were designed without any software in them, so that to tamper with them you had to replace the chip. We know that today it is possible to replace the chip if we have access to EVMs. And in a situation where the machines are kept in places where they are difficult to access, it may not be possible to tamper with all of them but it is possible to tamper with some of them by replacing the chip.

Following election results, we invariably come across reports of malfunctioning EVMs. On the VVPAT (voter verifiable paper audit trail) front too, there are reports of malfunctioning. Also, as per the rules, paper ballots and VVPAT machines are not counted until the Returning Officer asks for it. So, that is not a satisfactory solution either.

World over, countries are moving to paper ballots. Just as they are giving up on nuclear energy world over, countries realise that EVMs are problematic too, because they carry the risk of being tampered with. I feel the time has come for us to go back to the paper ballot.

The case of U.P.

The outcome of the recent Uttar Pradesh civic polls suggests that tampering could be happening. I am not saying there is conclusive proof of EVM tampering, but the results do raise questions and doubts about a decisive victory. I had tweeted that the Bharatiya Janata Party had won more in places where there were EVMs and lost more in places where paper ballots were used. The fear is enough for us to move to paper ballots. There are fears especially in the context of majoritarian governments, and especially with regard to this government which has subverted all the major institutions. Look at the manner in which the dates were announced for the Gujarat Assembly elections. This has created too many apprehensions in the minds of the people and of the Opposition. In order to restore public confidence, we need to go back to paper ballots.

EVMs have been in place for two decades and it is time to acknowledge that they have failed. Some European countries have acknowledged that EVMs have failed. Countries there started with EVMs and are now going back to the paper ballot.

Problems of paper ballot

Having said that, I do acknowledge that paper ballots are cumbersome. Transporting them and guarding them is a problem. And ballot boxes can be captured. In the past, we know how this was done. But when I see what is in store for us now, I find that the scope of EVM manipulation and what can be achieved through this is on a much larger scale compared to booth capturing. If EVMs are manipulated, all the votes could be captured with a greater degree of sophistication to favour one party. Tampering with EVMs would make booth capturing much easier. Besides, time and again the Election Commission (EC) has said that the machines cannot be hacked into as they are designed in such a manner so as to make that impossible. I quite agree with the EC when it says this.

But let us not be blind to a scenario where, if officials are complicit, and if the guards guarding the EVM machines are complicit, it is quite possible to replace the chips to get the desired verdict.

Prashant Bhushan is a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India

As told to Anuradha Raman



While it would be a retrograde step to roll back EVMs, we must not lower our guard


Mudit Kapoor

Is there a case for a relook at EVMs?

Holding free, fair, and fast elections is a cornerstone of democracy and is guaranteed by the Constitution. Introduction of EVMs by due process of consultation and constitutional amendment in the 1980s and ’90s was a step in the right direction to further strengthen the democratic process in India, which is by far the largest democracy in the world with more than 800 million voters.

In a recent paper, Sisir Debnath and Shamika Ravi and I looked at the impact of EVMs on democracy and development, by analysing data of more than 30 years of Assembly elections.

Why EVMs are important

There were four important findings. One, EVMs led to a significant decline in electoral fraud, particularly in politically sensitive States such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In several constituencies, polling booths were routinely captured under the paper ballot system and ballot boxes were stuffed. As a result, political leaders, instead of working in the larger interest of the public, worked for the private profits of a small fraction of people who had the greatest capacity to commit fraud. Introducing EVMs transformed this. Rigging elections became extremely expensive. Political leaders could no longer do lip service to development; they had to commit to providing public goods and services.

Two, using luminosity data, we found that EVMs led to a significant increase in the provision of electricity, particularly in States that were more prone to electoral violence. Research has shown a very strong link between luminosity and growth rate, suggesting that EVMs contribute to development.

Three, we also used data from civil society, and NGOs that monitor elections, and found that EVMs empowered those from the weaker sections of society who were victims of political or electoral violence. In particular, we found that women, lower castes, and those less educated were more likely to participate in the electoral process when EVMs were used.

Four, we also found that EVMs made the electoral process more competitive. There has been a significant decline in the incidence of re-election, and winning margins have reduced dramatically.

In light of this, it would be a retrograde step to roll back EVMs. However, this does not imply that we lower our guards. The very idea of democracy is based on trust and belief in the fairness of the electoral process where the losing party lives to fight another day. Any erosion of this trust and belief would be an irreversible process with an uncertain outcome.

Institutional checks

It is important to keep in mind that all political leaders, irrespective of caste, creed and religion, are driven only by the quest for power and they will use any means to attain it. Hence it is our collective responsibility to ensure that such powers are under check, else it does not take much for elected leaders to become despots. It is not out of the benevolence of political leaders that we expect delivery of public goods and services, but from the competitive electoral process that checks the self-interest of political leaders in their quest for power.

Our institutions, the EC, and the courts also share the responsibility to check the powers of popularly elected leaders to ensure that democracy does not become a mobocracy. Even though introduction of EVMs was a step in the right direction, it is not the final destination. The fragility of our democratic process is reflected in the fact that even now elections are conducted under the barrel of the gun.

Mudit Kapoor is associate professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute



We must remain sceptical and accept the reality that the EVM issue is far from settled


Kumar Ketkar

Is there a case for a relook at EVMs?

The issue of credibility of EVMs has become quite complicated, with Mayawati, Arvind Kejriwal, and leaders from the Samajwadi Party and the Congress raising serious objections about the functioning of the machines. Some leaders have gone to the extent of saying that the machines are being tampered with in order to favour the ruling BJP.

Claims and counterclaims

The EC has steadfastly maintained that the machines are perfect and that the software has been examined and re-examined by international experts. On the one hand, to reassert the integrity of the electoral process, the EC has introduced the paper trail for voters to cross-check their votes. On the other, some IIT-trained engineers have shown how the machines can actually be manipulated by remote devices, or by inserting pre-programmed chips, or by selectively tampering with only 20% of them to secure a simple majority. So, only a few constituencies will have those “chosen” machines and that would be enough to tilt the balance in favour of the ruling party. The EC says these allegations are outrageous because the whole system and process have been shown to detractors and the matter is settled.

Yet it appears far from settled. In the recent local elections in U.P., the BJP won more in places where there were machines without the concomitant paper trail, and non-BJP parties won more where there were only ballot papers. Not only has the reliability of the machines been questioned, so has the credibility of the EC. It is for the first time in India’s electoral history that the EC has been suspected of bias in favour of a ruling party.

In this context, it is instructive to go through what the globally renowned British scientist, physicist, mathematician and authority on Artificial Intelligence, Roger Penrose, has to say. In a scientific scenario-building exercise, “The Puzzling Election”, Penrose visualised the hi-tech rigging of an election in 1994 in his book Shadows of the Mind. He wrote an elaborate sequence of techno-rigging of the election.

In sum, this is what he wrote: The date of a long-awaited election approaches. Numerous opinion polls show the ruling party trailing by a significant margin. Indeed, the margin of error for each of these opinion polls is around 3% or 4%, so none of them can really be trusted. Polling day arrives, and passes. The votes are counted, and the result is a complete surprise. The ruling party is back with a comfortable majority, having achieved their target of 8% over their nearest rivals. How did this happen? The answer: Virus which does more than just destroy data. The viruses self-destruct, leaving no record whatsoever, bar the evil deed itself, to indicate their previous existence. The viruses have been cleverly concocted according to some precise formula, depending to some extent on the actual votes cast — to give the ruling party precisely the majority they need. Penrose shows that computers can rig an election with the help of AI technology.

Measure of caution

The idea of trying to control electoral and political process with the help of technology is quite old. In 1977, in Technology of Political Control, written when there was no electronic voting and AI, the strategy for manipulation of political and electoral process was elaborately discussed. To overcome the dangers of manipulation, we must remain sceptical and accept the reality that the EVM issue is not simple. The fact that the issue is complicated necessitates a measure of caution in its application.

Kumar Ketkar is a senior journalist

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Printable version | Oct 30, 2020 12:25:33 AM |

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