Do you trust the EVM?

Voter’s Trust: EC must take measures to ensure that all Indians can trust its election process, people and machines

On the afternoon of March 11 two years ago, Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati watched in shock and disbelief as the results of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections poured in. The BJP was romping home to a more than two-thirds majority in the state, registering victories even in Muslim-dominated constituencies.

Mayawati shot off a letter to the Chief Election Commissioner raising doubts over the election process and accusing the BJP of manipulating the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM), which have for long been seen as not only enabling efficient and easy holding of elections in a country as large and diverse as India, but also as being tamper-proof.

Outgoing Uttarakhand chief minister Harish Rawat also joined in crediting the BJP’s clean sweep in the assembly elections in the hill state to a “Modi revolution and EVM miracle”. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal made similar allegations about the Punjab elections, held alongside those in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

Interestingly, Congress’ Capt. Amarinder Singh, who registered a decisive win to over-throw the 10-year-old Akali Dal-BJP rule, dismissed allegations of tampering and vouched for the fairness of polls.

The trickle of concerns over the integrity of EVMs soon turned into a torrent, with more opposition leaders joining in and demanding a return to paper ballot. Media reports about “rigged” EVMs used in assembly by-polls in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan that followed in April added to the chorus. The suspicions were not without reason. In multiple elections and tests before elections, EVM have been found to ‘malfunction’. And a common feature in all these instances has been that no matter whom the voter had cast his vote for, the vote went to the BJP.

Alarmed by such reports, 17 political parties approached the Election Commission with a demand that all future elections be conducted using paper ballots. The political parties also criticized the Modi government for not providing the Election Commission with funds to put in place enough Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

After AAP lost the Delhi civic polls, it again voiced concerns over the efficacy of EVMs and even went on the give a demonstration in the Delhi Assembly of how the machines can be rigged within 90 seconds.

With AAP’s demonstration in the Delhi Assembly receiving wide media coverage, the Election Commission stepped in to address the concerns raised by the political parties and even offered EVMs of their choice used in the assembly elections Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Mizoram to prove the claims of tampering.

However, certain stiff conditions put by the Election Commission about not allowing the EVMs to be opened or change of internal circuits were cited as reasons by political parties to stay away from the challenge. The EC’s EVM challenge saw participation only from two political parties – NCP and the CPI (M), which withdrew after detailed discussions with the technical teams of the poll authority.

The EC also made it clear that the EVMs deployed by it were not hackable as these were standalone machines and not connected to the internet. The EVMs also do not have any frequency receiver or data decoder and hence could not be connected with any wireless, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth devices.

The EC also said that the latest version of EVMs, which will be deployed for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, will have inbuilt features to make the machine inoperative in case of any attempt to tamper it.

On the oft-quoted claims about European nations discontinuing use of EVMs, the poll authority observed that the Netherlands pulled the plug on the machines as the government lacked the technical knowledge on the use of EVMs and had to depend on “external actors” for conduct of elections.

Germany and Ireland used the EVMs manufactured by the Dutch private company and discontinued for various reasons, including violation of the “public nature” of elections and insecure transfer of data by use of compact discs (CDs).In India, while concerns over tampering of EVMs appeared to have been addressed by the EC, the action shifted to the paper audit trail to ensure high standards of transparency about the poll process.

The EC also received a shot in the arm when the Bombay High Court got a forensic report done to check claims of EVM rigging in the 2014 assembly elections in Pune. The Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Hyderabad found the EVMs to be tamper-proof.

However, the High Court, in its February 2018 order, asked the EC to use VVPAT in all polling booths in future elections to enable voters to know that their votes had actually gone in favour of the candidate of their choice. The Supreme Court had in 2013 mandated that VVPATs should be used with all EVMs by 2019.

The VVPAT is now the way to ensure transparency in the election process. Thus, many political parties are questioning the EC’s decision to tally the EVM vote count with that of the paper trail in only one polling booth per assembly constituency.

Last month, leaders of 23 political parties approached the EC with a demand that at least 50% of VVPATs should be hand-counted in every constituency. The EC said it has sought a report from the Indian Statistical Institute on what percentage would ensure a transparent election, which is expected before the Lok Sabha elections.

In late February, similar concerns were voiced by a group of 73 retired bureaucrats in a letter to the EC. The lack of transparency in VVPAT-based audit of EVMs has fuelled various conspiracy theories about ‘mass rigging of EVMs’. There have been unacceptable demands for reversion to paper ballots, they said. “But the real issue today is not about ‘EVMs versus Paper Ballots’. Rather, it is about ‘EVMs with perfunctory VVPAT audit versus EVMs with proper VVPAT audit,’ the retired bureaucrats, including former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, said.

Suggestions have also been made to conduct 100% hand-counting of VVPAT slips if the EC comes across faulty EVMs in the sampling exercise. Also, 100% hand counting should be resorted to in closely contested seats where the margin of victory is less than 1,000 votes even if no defective EVM is found in the sample.

These steps may stretch the process of counting of votes longer but would enhance the confidence in the electoral process.

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