Electronic vote prevails

The digital small wonder, the Electronic Voting Machine or EVM, is a much maligned device after the 2009 election results.

Major political parties and their leaders, who took the technology route in their campaigns for the 2009 Lok Sabha poll, are suddenly looking backwards. Doubts are being raised  against the Electronic Voting Machine, and their reliability questioned in public. The parties want to return to the good old paper ballot form of voting in the upcoming elections to some state assemblies.  

But, the Election Commission (EC) has stood its ground. While it has given its approval for the use of EVMs in Punjab by-elections early next month, the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike, which goes to the polls later this year, will also be using the electronic device for voting.

State Election Commissioner C R Chikkamath, who vouches for the complete safety and reliability of the EVM in the current electoral process, says he has placed an order for 9,500 EVMs and 6,000 ballot units from BEL, which is expected to be delivered by August 17.

Recalling his experience as election observer in more than half a dozen states, Mr Chikkamath says he has never faced any complaints against the EVM. Stating that EVM manufacturers BEL and the ECI may have a separate debate on the issue of tamperability, he goes on to explain that EVMs are not readily accessible to be meddled with. When an election takes place, the EVMs kept in the safe custody of the District Election Officer or Deputy Commissioner are checked by BEL engineers at district headquarters in the presence of nodal officers nominated by the DC, whose list is submitted to the Chief Electoral Officer. The prepared machines are kept under lock and key and handed over to the Returning Officer of a constituency through random selection. All the checks, verification, certification etc are done in the presence of the candidates, their agents or representatives. Hence, collusion is never a possibility.

If anybody can be faulted, it is the political parties and candidates themselves. Most of the time, they are never present during the checking of machines and mock drills before an election, despite being given advance notice. One or two who may appear are also not serious about the procedures.

An amused Mr Chikkamath says, during the 2009 Lok Sabha poll in Mehsana in Gujarat, one candidate did come for the preliminary drill, but disappeared soon after he asked him to file the expenditure statement.

In the 2000 US presidential election, many computer programmers and scientists showed electronic voting can be manipulated. They raised issues like failure of software, hacking, integrity of the private manufacturer, pre- programming and internet misuse.

US bogey

The same fears, perhaps, are plaguing our political class. But, the e-voting system of the US and the Indian EVM are different, argue electronic and computer engineers. The EVM is a stand-alone machine, not connected to any network or loop. At best, it is a glorified calculator that merely registers and counts votes in digital form. The voting process is the same as in paper ballot system - like taking signature/thumb impression of voter, voter identification, sealing, inking etc.

The final result can be tallied against the votes polled as per the register with the polling officials.

The microchip used in EVMs is manufactured abroad and  sealed at the time of import. It cannot be opened and any attempt to rewrite the program cannot be done without damaging the chip.

Moreover, the elaborate checks and balances make pre-coding an EVM to favour a particular candidate impractical as nobody knows which constituency and polling booth will get which machine. Two levels of random selection of machines ensure complete secrecy. After an election, the counting staff are also randomised and micro observers posted at each counting table.

Tampering lakhs of EVMs is again impossible, contends a senior election official, seeking anonymity. “If the media was shown that EVMs can be tampered, as claimed by some persons and political parties, it must have been done in a lab/room. Where is the time to do so in a polling booth?” the officer questions.

Poll violence

“We have seen in the days of paper ballot how booths were captured and ballot papers shoved in after stamping them in favour of a particular party. We have not heard such a thing happen after EVMs came,” argues a Returning Officer, who has ‘umpired’ many elections.

EVMs also help avoid invalid votes, reduce bogus voting and ensure the principle of ‘one person, one vote’. When ballot system was in vogue, the number of invalid votes was more than the winning margin between the candidates in many an election.

The EVM accepts only five votes in a minute. The election process is distributed in such a way that there are never more than 1,500 voters for a single polling booth. So, even if armed men capture the polling station, they cannot cast 1,500 bogus votes in less than five hours, and Indian police is not as slow as the movies project them to be.

The US saga related to Diebold, private manufacturer of its e-voting system, and the opposition to it is well known. The Diebold system is too complex for a simple and straight forward task such as voting. All geeks know that a smaller and simple system is more secure as more code means more cost, more chances for bugs, more threats to security. Sure, there cannot be a system that is “guaranteed” as secure. A lot depends on the electoral process and the integrity of election officials.

Indian EVMs are designed and developed by BEL and ECIL, both State-owned defence equipment manufacturing units, to the specifications of the EC.

Paper ballot costs

* 1999: 7,700 metric ton paper used for printing of ballot paper.
* 1996: 8,800 metric ton.

Paranoids worry

“With fully electronic systems there is no way voters can verify that the ballot they cast corresponds to the one that is recorded, transmitted and counted by the machine.”

Solution: Electronic system which produces a paper record of the ballot that can be verified by the voter before it automatically drops into the system. This paper record will be available for checking if anything goes wrong. 

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