Insights into Editorial: Is it time to block and chain the EVMs?
Blaming the electronic voting machine (EVM) for their electoral defeat has been common for political parties in India. Every time a party has a rough time in an election, the easiest way out for its representatives to console themselves is to blame the machine. This is a blame game indulged in periodically, notwithstanding the fact that the Election Commission of India (ECI) has time and again demonstrated, through increased and transparent measures, the reliability and fool-proof nature of the EVM.
How EVMs operate?
The ECI has issued a detailed press note reiterating that EVMs are standalone machines and are not networked either by wire or by wireless to any other machine or system. Hence, they cannot be influenced or manipulated by signals from mobile phones or any other source. The software in the machine is burnt into a one-time programmable chip or masked chip and can never be altered or tampered with. The source code of the software is not handed over to any outsider. The ECI also cited judgments of different High Courts and the Supreme Court of India that upheld the reliability of EVMs.
How security and transparency is ensured?
The ECI has prescribed a series of steps in its standard operating procedures to enhance transparency and provide an opportunity for political parties and candidates to participate in testing the reliability of the machines. During the first-level of testing before the machines are allotted to various constituencies from storage points, party representatives are invited. They can select at random 5% of the machines in which up to 1,000 votes will be polled to demonstrate the reliability and fidelity of the machines. A computer programme allocates, at random, machines to constituencies. The second-level of testing is done when, from the constituency headquarters, machines are allocated — again at random, using a computer programme — to polling stations. At this juncture, the candidates — who by now come on the scene — are allowed to test the machines at random. The serial number of the machine sent to each polling station is shared with the candidates, who can pass on this information to their representatives in the respective polling stations.
Finally, before the start of the polling process on the day of the election, each presiding officer conducts a mock poll to demonstrate the “correctness” the machine in recording votes. When absurd allegations were floated that the machine has been programmed to record votes to the same candidate who gets the first 50 votes, the ECI mandated using 100 votes in the mock poll on polling day.
Use of blockchain technology:
Amid the controversy, some experts have suggested the use of blockchain technology. An emerging technology called blockchain is in various stages of implementation across the world for voting and other public services. Due to its unique attributes of trust, transparency and immutability, such a system is expected to mitigate issues like vote manipulation in political processes. In India, given the favourable conditions of improved infrastructure and interest, the time is ripe for the ECI to explore blockchain technology as a future alternative to EVMs.
What is blockchain?
Blockchain can be thought of as a public account ledger, an immutable, transparent and permanent one. Each transaction is recorded and stored in the ledger that is out on a public bulletin board. Every transaction adds a block to the chain of transactions and each one is evaluated by every user based on algorithms they’ve agreed upon. Rather than being kept in single location, a copy of the blockchain is stored on every user’s server so that a user cannot alter it without other users finding out.
How blockchain voting takes place?
Even though blockchain was conceived for financial transactions, its characteristics make it an apt solution that can support voting systems. In blockchain voting, each transaction is similar to a vote and through the use of multiple blockchains along with public key encryption, the voting process is secured while protecting the anonymity of voters. The votes can then be randomized more than three times in the digital ballot box so that voters’ identities are not revealed. After the polls are closed, a separate blockchain application is created for the counting of votes in the digital ballot box. That blockchain should match the public bulletin board’s blockchain, proving that the online voting system has operated correctly.
Advantages of blockchain voting:
Blockchains are transparent and designed to have a decentralized authority which ensures that control is not in one hand and the process is visible to the public always. Further, the audit trail of the transactions combined with public key encryption solves the issue of auditability.
The technology is already being used by various countries. Such systems are already being used by Australia, Denmark, Norway, Malta, Spain and South Korea. In India, given the deep penetration of cellphones and the unique identification (Aadhaar) system, blockchain could be a practical and feasible tool to fight voter fraud and alleviate vote authentication and validation concerns. Aadhaar cards and electronic-know your customer (e-KYC) norms are already becoming mainstream. These critical infrastructure components can be leveraged to implement blockchain solutions in voting and public services such as land registrations, public-private contracts and other service level agreements (SLA).
Keeping in mind the emerging and potential threats to the current system, it is essential to experiment with new technologies that can potentially secure the system. Conducting research, building proof of concepts and end-to-end pilots by leveraging the burgeoning activity in blockchain technology can be undertaken by the ECI. This will not only help in understanding the nuances of blockchain that can be adapted to the Indian voting system, but also answer critical questions regarding compliance with the norms and principles of voting.