Electronic Voting Machines, VVPATs and Elections in India

Introduction –

The implementation or evaluation of any policy decision must consider not just abstract reasoning but base it on empirical and historical evidence.

This holds true for the debate on the question of persisting with the electronic voting machine, or EVM, in the Indian electoral process.

Much has been said by commentators and political party representatives about the futility of using the EVM because of the possibility of electoral fraud by manipulating the technology that drives the machine.

Informed critiques of the EVM and its handling have helped in some ways, one of them being the universal implementation of the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) that allows for a layer of verification to the electoral process.

Therefore, it is necessary to understand and list down the probable aspect of this system to be used in the electoral process throughout the country.

Electronic Voting Machines

Two important Concepts and Brief Explanation – 

1) Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) – 

EVM or Electronic Voting Machines are used to cast vote without revealing your identity. It is used in Indian General and State Elections. It has replaced paper ballots in local, state and general (parliamentary) elections in India. EC has announced that all ensuing elections will be held with the Voters Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) enabled EVM. EC has sanctioned Rs 3,174 crore for the purchase of 16,15,000 VVPATs.

2) Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) – 

Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines are used during election process to verify that the vote polled by a voter goes to the correct candidate. VVPATs are a second line of verification and are particularly useful in the time when allegations around Electronic Voting Machines’ tampering crop up. Parties have been making regular demands for VVPATs to be used during elections after alleging EVMs may not be completely secure and tamper proof. VVPAT machines give instant feedback to the voters showing that the vote polled in fact has been allotted against the candidate chosen.

Advantages of EVM in the Election process –

  1. In most of the advanced version of electronic voting machines, there are no external communication paths which make it difficult for the hackers to hack the machine and tamper the count numbers.
  1. Electronic voting machines with touch base screen are proven to be advantageous for the physically challenged people. In a paper ballot, these physically challenged people were not able to cast their votes in private. However, with the new EVM in place, even handicapped people can use their right to vote in private.
  1. Electronic voting machines are cost effective and economical. In the paper ballot, the amount of raw material used is higher. It directly impacts the environment as paper ballot uses papers to cast votes. However, the cost associated with holding elections with EVMs is considered to be negligible.
  1. The best thing about electronic voting machines is that they are real time savers. With electronic voting machines in place, one can count the votes in few minutes which makes life easier for the election officers on duty. In a paper ballot, the vote counting process is quite tedious and time-consuming.
  1. Electronic voting machines are quite effective against the bogus votes. Electronic voting machines are programmed to capture a maximum of five votes in a minute. Due to which a single vote cannot cast fake votes. Also in few advanced electronic voting machines, a sound of beep comes after one casts their vote which lets the officer on duty know that the vote has been cast by an individual.
  1. Electronic voting machines are designed in a way that they keep a track of number and details of votes recorded. The election commission can even save the data for a longer period of time which might be helpful for referencing in future.
  1. In a largely populous country like India, where millions of people come out to cast their votes, the electronic voting machine works as a wonder. In a paper ballot, it takes a huge amount of time for everyone to cast votes.
  1. Electronic voting machines are easier to carry and transport from one place to another without any hassle. One single machine can record several votes captured through that machine.
  1. Few electronic voting machines also come with a voice support to assist the visually impaired voter. In such cases, the visually challenged person can cast their vote without any problem.
  1. In electronic voting machines one can see all the symbols and names of the candidates together which makes it easier for the voter to choose among the many and cast their votes.

Disadvantages of the EVM in the election process –

  1. Many software programmers have claimed that the electronic voting machines are vulnerable to malicious programming and if it gets affected then any hacker can hack the machine and can tamper the vote counts easily.
  1. Many physically challenged people have complained that the touch base screen is not efficient enough to capture the vote accurately. Sometimes it leads to the voter ending up voting for someone else unintentionally.
  1. Although it takes the time to count votes that were captured using paper ballot but people fully trust the process as high technology are also vulnerable to hackers attack.
  1. The biggest change with technology is that no matter how much data it records but a single virus can destroy the entire data storage. The electronic voting machines which were used during the elections are susceptible to damage which will result in loss of data.
  1. The highly humid area and those areas which receive frequent rainfall are not suitable for casting votes using electronic voting machines. As machines are prone to damage due to high humidity level thus usage of electronic voting machines are not advisable in such areas.
  1. Most of the electronic voting machines used in the country were foreign manufactured, which means the secret codes that control the electronic voting machines are in foreign hands and they can be used to influence the election results.
  1. Fake display units could be installed in the electronic voting machines which would show manipulated numbers but originally fake votes could be generated from the back end. This process does not need any hacker to hack the software. Such fake display units are easily available in the market.
  1. Most of the electronic voting machines used in the country do not have any mechanism by which the voter can verify their identity before casting the vote due to which fake voters can cast numerous fake votes.
  1. Electronic voting machines can be tampered during its manufacturing and in such cases, it does not even require any hacker or malware to manipulate the actual voting.

Facts & Contentions – 

  1. While glitches and machine failures have been reported or misreported as outcomes of “EVM hacking”, administrative errors in transporting the machines have been presented as evidence of tampering. The fact that glitches being reported have gone up is true enough. The replacement rate for machines deployed in the by-elections of Uttar Pradesh in 2018 went up to as high as 20% because of failures — primarily of the VVPAT machine that is adjunct to the control and ballot units of the EVM. These glitches had caused difficulties in conducting polls in the Karnataka Assembly elections, in May 2018, as well. But there were specific reasons for these.
  1. The introduction of the VVPAT to allow for a paper count of the registered votes has also added a level of complexity to the otherwise simple technology that runs the EVM. The VVPAT was also rushed into service because of the constant carping about the possibility of EVM hacking by political parties. The VVPAT failure rates were high early on in elections held in late 2017 and early 2018, with hardware issues occurring during transportation and exposure to extreme weather conditions. The ECI sought to correct these problems by repairing components related to the printing spool of the VVPAT machines and the deployment of many corrected machines in the three Assembly elections held recently — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — resulted in much reduced replacement rates (close to 2.5% in Madhya Pradesh and 1.9% in Chhattisgarh). This suggests that the ECI is relatively better prepared to handle VVPAT-related glitches in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
  1. Election Commission of India states that, it would require “insider mischief” by officials of the ECI, or by employees of the EVM manufacturers (Bharat Electronics Limited and the Electronics Corporation of India Limited) or the introduction of Trojans (malicious software) at the chip burning stage (a process currently outsourced to overseas firms) and which remain undetected by the manufacturers during their “first level checks” of the firmware, to create problems.
  1. Countering the points mentioned above, Critics of the EVM suggest that there is a non-zero possibility of such ways that will result in the deployment of tampered EVMs susceptible to manipulation. These are far-fetched but technically possible scenarios that assume malicious actions by vendors that are deliberately ignored by the manufacturers, “insider fraud” that remains undetected, and coordinated actions by agents who manage to shift vote counts in favour of their party using the manipulation that is possible with the tampered EVMs.

Arguments in support of EVMs and VVPAT –

  1. The ECI has reassured us many a time that the simplicity of the architecture of the EVM (software written onto a one-time programmable chip; standalone machines that are not networked; the lack of any frequency receiver or wireless decoder that will allow for communication externally; and advancements in newly deployed machines that allow for self-diagnostics to render the machines tamper-proof among other things) has helped it evade some of the misgivings experienced by EVMs used in other countries.
  1. Combining this with administrative safeguards that allow for rigorous checks at various levels, such as after manufacture, during deployment, and so on; randomisation of deployment of machines, a listing of candidates in alphabetical order rather than on party basis on ballot units; sealing of machines by political party representatives after polling and storing in high security “strong-rooms”, the ECI has asserted that all these have made tampering impossible.
  1. The implementation of the VVPAT as a device has rendered it possible to verify if at all such schemes have happened to subvert the mandate of voters. VVPATs will help find if there is anything malicious that has gone on by comparing machine tallies with the hand-counted tally of the slips. The VVPAT’s introduction and use is also necessary to address doubts related to the possibility of EVM hacking despite the safeguards in place.
  1. Currently, the ECI allows for the votes recorded in the VVPAT to be counted in only one randomly chosen polling booth in each Assembly segment. Former bureaucrat K. Ashok Vardhan Shetty has suggested that a more robust count of VVPAT slips would entail the setting of a State-wise number of the booths to be counted, that is adjusted for population, voting turnout and other factors. This is a legitimate suggestion that the ECI should pay heed to in order to dispel any lingering doubts about the electoral process.
  1. There is a recent idea flowing that EVMs should be junked because of the possibilities mentioned above and that we should return to paper ballots as the means of voting is not just problematic but is also an a historical argument. In a recent paper, researchers such as Shamika Ravi have shown that the use of EVMs had led to a significant decline in election fraud such as rigging, booth capturing, ballot stuffing, etc. in many States and even resulted in increased voter turnout especially of the vulnerable and poorer sections of the Indian electorate. In other words, the EVM has served the purpose which was the reason for its deployment by the ECI in the first place — to assure free and fair elections, and to ease the process of voting. Improvements to the EVM are certainly possible, but a return to paper ballots is an untenable proposition.

Conclusion –

Indian democracy is the largest democracy in the world where elections after regular intervals, except a few, have been conducted successfully and the transfer of power has been peaceful. Along with the administrative efficiency of the Election Commission, the technology used in the form of EVMs and now the VVPATs has always aided the process of election to be smoothened up. Now, instead of raising contentions over the viability of the EVMs and the doubts around them, the best possible way of improving upon our electoral process and bringing in greater trust in it is in a continuing and constructive critique of India’s EVM through a scrutiny of the election process including technical assessments of the devices used; but there should be no place for an uninformed dismissal of the EVM as a part of the discourse as this will only increase distrust in our democratic process.

Q. The recent debate about the viability of the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) in the elections, is a crucial aspect to be addressed prudently and rationally to maintain and nurture the highly valued democratic tradition of the elections in India. Comment (250 words)

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