Insights into Editorial: Back to paper: on using VVPAT in Gujarat polls

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Insights into Editorial: Back to paper: on using VVPAT in Gujarat polls


vvpat

Background:

Election Commission issues formal direction to use VVPAT machines in all future Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. In a letter to state Chief Electoral Officers, the  Commission said,  Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) will be used at polling stations in all future elections where polls are held using Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs).

Since August 2013 after the Supreme Court order, VVPATs are being used with EVMs in selected constituencies during the polls.

In May this year, the Commission had announced hundred per cent coverage of VVPAT in all future elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies and now formal directions have been issued.

Recently, several political parties have been pressing for the use of these machines to dispel doubts about EVM tampering. After the UP assembly elections early this year, sixteen parties had also petitioned the poll panel to revert to paper ballot system for greater transparency.

Gujarat will be the second state after Goa and the first big state to use the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system for the coming Assembly elections.

The Election Commission also said it has been considering counting Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) slips of one polling station in each assembly constituency on a pilot basis in the upcoming Himachal Pradesh elections.

What are VVPAT machines?

The Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail is a method that provides feedback to voters.

  • It is an independent verification printer machine and is attached to electronic voting machines.
  • It allows voters to verify if their vote has gone to the intended candidate.

How do VVPAT machines work?

When a voter presses a button in the EVM, a paper slip is printed through the VVPAT.

  • The slip contains the poll symbol and name of the candidate.
  • It allows the voter to verify his/her choice.  After being visible to the voter from a glass case in the VVPAT for seven seconds, the ballot slip will be cut and dropped into the drop box in the VVPAT machine and a beep will be heard.
  • VVPAT machines can be accessed by polling officers only.

VVPAT is a machine which dispenses a slip with the symbol of the party for which a person has voted for. The slip dropped in a box but the voter cannot take it home.

What is the Election Commission’s stand on the issue?

The EC has time and again reiterated that EVMs cannot be tampered with.

  • It has made public the findings of inquiries into specific charges of tampering in Madhya Pradesh’s Bhind and Rajasthan’s Dholpur that give a clean chit to the machines. 
  • With the Opposition insisting on doing away with the EVMs and the controversy refusing to die down, the EC had thrown open a challenge, inviting computer experts and political leaders to prove that the machines can be hacked, in the presence of the EVM manufacturers.
  • Now, Election Commission issues formal direction to use VVPAT machines in all future Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.
  • Gujarat will be the first big state to use the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system for the coming Assembly elections.

What does the Supreme Court say?

The Supreme Court on April 13, 2017, asked the Centre to respond to a plea by the BSP party to comply with a 2013 Supreme Court directive to introduce paper trail in EVMs.

  • In 2013, the SC had asked the Commission to introduce paper trails in EVMs in a phased manner for the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections.
  • EVMs with VVPAT system ensure the accuracy of the voting system.
  • The bench has said with intent to have fullest transparency in the system and to restore the confidence of the voters, it is necessary to set up EVMs with VVPAT system because vote is nothing but an act of expression which has immense importance in democratic system.

Why did Election Commission decide to deploy VVPAT system?

The Election Commission’s decision to deploy the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail system for all the constituencies in the Gujarat Assembly elections  will be the first time VVPAT used on a State-wide basis. The EC had sought to allay concerns and confront allegations of voter fraud by running through the administrative and technological safeguards instituted to keep EVMs and the voting process tamper-proof.

  • A costly but useful complement to the Electronic Voting Machine, it allows the voter to verify her vote after registering it on the EVM.
  • The paper trail allows for an audit of the election results by the EC in a select and randomised number of constituencies.
  • The implementation of VVPAT was to have been undertaken by the EC in a phased manner, but this blanket use appears to have been expedited after a series of unwarranted attacks on EVMs by some political parties.

VVPAT ensures transparency and confidence in the election process

The execution of the VVPAT concept would result in printed receipts of what party the EVM machine has registered a vote for. The said printed receipts would then ideally be collected by the voters and subsequently dropped in a ballot box.

Therefore, the votes registered in the EVM may then be tallied with the ballot papers collected in the ballot box, thus, allowing the commission to ascertain whether a recount is required or not. Such printed receipts ensure that the voting is carried out in a more transparent fashion and further inspiring confidence in the election process.

What are the other areas that EC must stay vigilant on?

Due to VVPAT machines during the poll, the voters will experience the transparency and would enjoy a new right. It would be wise for the EC to rapidly transit to third-generation, tamper-proof machines, which must be thoroughly tested and vetted by experts before deployment.

  • The EC’s use of a standalone, non-networked machine that runs on a single programmed microchip shows that India’s EVM are simple but effective.
  • Many advanced democracies used networked EVMs, which raised the question of remote manipulation through viruses and malware, compelling many of them to revert to paper ballots. Hence our EVMs must ahead of the curve compared to the alternatives used elsewhere in the world.
  • The EC has so far demonstrated that the voting process is robust so its machines should continually be upgraded to meet possible challenges.
  • There are other concerns regarding the use of technology that it must be aware of. For example, Russian cyber-hacking, using techniques such as spear-phishing of election officials and related manipulation of voter data, has been suspected in some jurisdictions abroad.
  • A preliminary estimation by the watchdog indicates the move will lead to a three-hour delay in declaration of poll result. In this case, an internal committee should be set up by EC to discuss the modalities of fully VVPAT-based polls and proposed matching of paper trail with EVM

Way forward

The EC’s move in late 2015 to avoid the linking of the voter identity card with the Aadhaar number in order to avoid the trap of linkages with big data, thus becoming susceptible to digital manipulation, was thus a wise decision. It must continue to keep its processes decentralised and accountable.

It had also challenged political parties to a hackathon to see if, with these safeguards in place, EVMs could be manipulated.  However, the representatives of only two political parties (the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Nationalist Congress Party) bothered to turn up. It is unfortunate that parties have found it worthwhile to cry wolf but refuse to meaningfully engage with the EC when challenged to do so.

The introduction of VVPAT and the audit process should allay some of the doubts raised by EVM naysayers and should ensure transparency and confidence in the electoral process.

By 2019 general elections, VVPAT machines with EVMs in all the constituencies are expected to be introduced.