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Posted at: Mar 21, 2017, 12:43 AM; last updated: Mar 21, 2017, 12:43 AM (IST)

It is about integrity of the electoral process

M.G. Devasahayam
It is about integrity of the electoral process
Machines of wrath: Election officials prepare for distribution of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) at a distribution centre in Amritsar, on the eve of the Punjab Assembly elections, Tribune Photo: Vishal Kumar
Amidst  severe doubts expressed by leaders of political parties who  lost the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab (Bahujan Samaj Party and the Aam Aadmi Party) about the possible rigging of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), the Election Commission of India (ECI) has emphatically supported the machines. It has dismissed the allegations as speculative and wild.The poll panel also asserted that it had not received specific complaints or concrete material from political parties and candidates about alleged tampering of EVMs during the recent elections. 

In the event, ECI's counter was categorical: “Such concerns about alleged tamperability of ECI-EVM have been raised earlier also since their introduction, including before the high court and the Supreme Court. These allegations have been dismissed. The ECI unequivocally reiterates that given effective technical and administrative safeguards, EVMs are not tamperable and the integrity of electoral process is preserved.”

On earlier occasions, when the EC had offered opportunities, no one was able to demonstrate that the EVM with the ECI and used in the country's election process, could be tampered with. This was soon after the 2009 Parliamentary elections. At that time, brushing aside objections from political parties and individuals, ECI under the watch of then Chief Election Commissioner, Navin Chawla, not only expressed satisfaction that EVMs could not be tampered with but claimed "infallibility" for the machines. The "infallibility" theory was questioned on technical and democratic grounds. 

The ECI, along with its expert group, countered the technical criticism. The argument was that EVMs cannot be hacked because these are stand-alone equipments and not connected to any "network". The democracy argument was more difficult to counter. Under the paper-ballot system, voters had the satisfaction of checking the accuracy of the ballot-paper before marking the vote; verifying whether he/she has correctly marked it, and physical reconstruction of the vote for authentication in case of an electoral dispute. Vote counting was open and transparent. Under the electronic voting system all these were lost.

Among the most active "activist" who had launched a virtual war against the EVM was GVL Narasimha Rao, the psephologist-turned-BJP spokesperson. He trashed the EVMs by arguing: the whole world had discarded similar EVMs; use of EVM is unconstitutional and illegal; EVM software and hardware are not safe; EVMs are sitting ducks; insider fraud, storing and counting are concerns; ECI is clueless on technology and there is trust deficit. On these grounds, he wrote a book, Democracy at Risk —Can we trust our EVM! Subramanian Swamy, presently a BJP Rajya Sabha MP,  too challenged the EVM in the Delhi High Court. Inimitably, Swamy threw a poser and responded to it himself: “Why are the EVMs so vulnerable? Each step in the life cycle of a voting machine — from the time it is developed and installed to when the votes are recorded and the data transferred to a central repository for tallying — involves different people gaining access to the machines, often installing new software. It wouldn't be hard for anyone to paint a parallel programme under another password on one or many voting machines that would, before voters arrived at the poll stations, ensure a pre-determined outcome.” 

Thereafter, S.Y. Quraishi took over as the Chief Election Commissioner and the ECI went into these issues and came out with the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) solution to be tried out in state assembly elections and then extended to the whole country. VVPAT facilitates a voter to physically see the printout of the vote cast by him/her although this cannot be taken out of the polling booth. This could dispel the doubts about "tampering" of EVM substantially. With this assurance, Courts disposed of the case in 2012. Despite tests and trials, ECI is nowhere near implementing the VVPAT decision. 

The doubt that has arisen is not about the efficacy of an inanimate machine but the integrity of the electoral process. Integrity is described as "uncompromising adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty." Unfortunately, as of now if there is one area where this is near-totally absent in India, it is in the electoral process through which political leaders are elected to govern the country. Election is the essence of democracy and integrity, its salt. But, India's elections have been fast losing its salt.

Over the years, the election process has faced several challenges to its integrity ---- "terror of mafia-money", criminalising of electoral politics, massive freebies and malfunctioning of political parties. These have deprived the elections of integrity and a level playing field. It tilts heavily in favour of the criminal and the corrupt. Successive governments have done nothing to reform the system. Thus the trust deficit and lurking suspicion about the electoral process.

Despite ECIs aggressive postures, the core technical argument that EVMs cannot be hacked or tampered because these are stand-alone equipments and not "networked" sounds hollow. It has been nailed by the German IT expert, Ulrich Weisner, who spearheaded the case leading to the ban on EVMs by the German Federal Supreme Court. According to him, the NEDAP (N.V. Nederlandsche Apparatenfabriek) voting machines — now banned in the Netherlands, Ireland and Germany — are not networked either. They are similar to the Indian EVMs, and need to be connected to a configuration device before the election, but work stand-alone with no connection with the internet or other networks during the election and counting phase. Someone with access to the machines can replace the implanted software with any software, including vote stealing software and a chess programme. Weisner also counters ECI's claim of "non-tamperability," saying that this can only refer to "by user operation via keys." But someone who has sufficient access to open the machines and replace soft or hardware can implant virtually any functionality, including vote stealing functionality that is only activated under certain circumstances and would not be spotted in tests. This brings ECI to Square Zero!

The main reason for the removal of the EVMs in these countries was their negative impact on the transparency and integrity of the election process, and the fact that any malfunction or manipulation of the devices would remain undetected. This is applicable mutatis mutandis to India and it is time ECI addressed this seriously, instead of being in denial.

The writer is Convener, Forum for Electoral Integrity

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