Is there a case for a relook at EVMs?

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Insights into Editorial: Is there a case for a relook at EVMs?


 Is there a case for a relook at EVMs?

Context:

The issue of credibility of EVMs has become quite complicated with different parties raising serious objections about the functioning of the machines.

The controversy surrounding the electronic voting machine (EVM) tampering was reignited after the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party raised the issue with the Election Commission.

Some leaders have gone to the extent of saying that the machines are being tampered with in order to favour the ruling party.

An open challenge was given by EC to prove allegations of EVM tampering.

However, in the recent local elections in U.P, Not only has the reliability of the machines been questioned, so has the credibility of the EC.

What is an EVM and how exactly does it work?

EVMs or electronic voting machines provide the voter with a button for each choice which is connected by a cable to an electronic ballot box.

An EVM consists of two units–control unit and balloting unit–and these two are connected by a five-meter cable. When a voter presses a button against the candidate he/she wishes to vote for, the machine locks itself.

This EVM can be opened only with a new ballot number. This way, EVMs ensure that one person gets to vote only once.

When were EVMs first used in elections?

The use of EVM started back in 1982 Kerala Assembly elections. Prior to this only ballot papers and ballot boxes were allowed.

Production and Design

There are only two Indian PSUs (Bharat Electronic Limited (BEL), Electronics Corporation of Indian Limited (ECIL)) that manufacture EVM machines. The secret source code is only accessible to a few engineers. Engineers who are in the factory have no clue about the constituency wise deployment of the machine.

Why is India using EVMs?

Holding free, fair, and fast elections is a cornerstone of democracy and is guaranteed by the Constitution. Introduction of EVMs by due process of consultation and constitutional amendment in the 1980s and ’90s was a step in the right direction to further strengthen the democratic process in India, which is by far the largest democracy in the world with more than 800 million voters.

Using EVMs means doing away with paper ballots, and in turn, saving millions of trees from being cut.

  • It makes the entire process of voting simpler-a click on the button and your vote is registered.
  • EVMs, in the long-run, have turned out to be cost-effective as well.
  • These machines don’t require electricity and run on batteries.
  • At the same time, the EVMs are lighter and portable compared to the huge ballot boxes.
  • And most importantly, EVMs have made the vote-counting process much faster, delivering results in hours as against manual counting of votes which could take days.

VVPAT comes into the picture

After concerns were raised on whether EVMs are tamper-proof, the Election Commission appointed a committee to look into the possibility of linking the EVMs to a paper trail machine to show voters a slip with the party symbol for which they have voted. As a result, voters can immediately check if their vote is cast for the person/party of their choice.

The Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) was first used in 2013 in Nagaland’s Noksen Assembly constituency.

Questions are raised on EVMs, Yet again

The EC has steadfastly maintained that the machines are perfect and that the software has been examined and re-examined by international experts.

On the other, some IIT-trained engineers have shown how the machines can actually be manipulated by remote devices, or by inserting pre-programmed chips, or by selectively tampering with only 20% of them to secure a simple majority. So, only a few constituencies will have those “chosen” machines and that would be enough to tilt the balance in favour of the ruling party.

The EC says these allegations are outrageous because the whole system and process have been shown to detractors and the matter is settled.

Yet it appears far from settled. In the recent local elections in U.P., the BJP won more in places where there were machines without the concomitant paper trail, and non-BJP parties won more where there were only ballot papers. Not only has the reliability of the machines been questioned, so has the credibility of the EC.

It is for the first time in India’s electoral history that the EC has been suspected of bias in favour of a ruling party.

Arguments that are in favour of Paper Ballot

Following arguments question the EVM system and support Paper ballot.

  • We invariably come across reports of malfunctioning EVMs.
  • The only way an EVM can be tampered with is by physically opening it up and replacing the chipset inside it. The chipset used is non-reprogrammable and data is ‘burnt’ into the device. So, today it is possible to replace the chip if we have access to EVMs
  • On the VVPAT (voter verifiable paper audit trail) front too, there are reports of malfunctioning. Also, as per the rules, paper ballots and VVPAT machines are not counted until the Returning Officer asks for it.
  • The outcome of the recent Uttar Pradesh civic polls suggests that tampering could be happening.
  • Oldest democracy, US, still uses paper ballot system for the presidential elections as Americans feel safer in using paper ballots as compared to electronic voting machines.

However, there are problems of paper ballot.

  • Transporting them and guarding them is a problem.
  • Ballot boxes can be captured.

Arguments in support of significance of EVMs

  • EVMs led to a significant decline in electoral fraud, particularly in politically sensitive States as rigging elections became extremely expensive.
  • Research has shown a link between luminosity and growth rate, suggesting that EVMs contribute to development.
  • EVMs empowered those from the weaker sections of society who were victims of political or electoral violence. In particular, women, lower castes, and those less educated were more likely to participate in the electoral process when EVMs were used.
  • EVMs made the electoral process more competitive.
  • There has been a significant decline in the incidence of re-election, and winning margins have reduced dramatically.

However, this does not imply that we lower our guards. The very idea of democracy is based on trust and belief in the fairness of the electoral process where the losing party lives to fight another day. Any erosion of this trust and belief would be an irreversible process with an uncertain outcome.

What is the Way forward?

The competitive electoral process checks the self-interest of political leaders in their quest for power.

Our institutions, the EC, and the courts also share the responsibility to check the powers of popularly elected leaders to ensure that democracy does not become a mobocracy. 

Even though many arguments favour introduction of EVMs was a step in the right direction, it is not the final destination. If EVMs are manipulated, all the votes could be captured with a greater degree of sophistication to favour one party. Tampering with EVMs would make booth capturing much easier. Besides, time and again the Election Commission (EC) has said that the machines cannot be hacked into as they are designed in such a manner so as to make that impossible.

To overcome the dangers of manipulation, we must remain sceptical and accept the reality that the EVM issue is not simple. The fact that the issue is complicated necessitates a measure of caution in its application.