Indian democracy depends on EVM reliability

Chennai: India, a nation of more than a billion people, is the largest democracy in the world. Founding fathers envisaged India as a secular, multi party democracy based on universal adult franchise. To this end, periodic elections are held by an autonomous institution Election Commission of India (EC) set up under constitutional mandate. Over a period of time as the democracy matured in India, because of its vast population and rich diversity, numerous political parties sprang up on regional, linguistic, religious and community lines. As per EC data, a total of 363 parties have contested in 2009 general elections (national elections). This translated into 8070 candidates contesting for 543 Lok Sabha (lower house of the parliament) seats.

Because of the magnitude of these exercises, holding elections was becoming increasingly costly and difficult. In 1996 general elections a total of 8000 tons of paper (for ballot) was used. In 1999, 7,700 tons was used. To address this issue, EC in collaboration with two public sector companies, Bharat Electronics Limited, Bangalore and Electronic Corporation of India, Hyderabad developed Electronic Voting Machines (EVM). EVMs were first tested in 50 polling stations of Parur assembly constituency, in Kerala, in 1982 by-elections. Later in 1989, 90 EVMs were used in 16 assembly constituencies in three states.

In 1999 elections EVMs were used in larger proportion as compared with 1996 Elections (that’s why the usage of paper is reduced from 8000 tons in 1996 to 7700 in 1999) and in 2004 election, paper ballot was done away with, and EVMs were used for the whole process. According to the EC’s claim using EVMs has brought down the cost of holding the elections along with reducing the amount of time it takes for declaring the results.

According to the website India-elections.com EVMs are tamper-proof, stand alone units that are highly reliable. Though this claim is supported by EC, various activist groups hotly contest it. In Apr 2010 an independent researcher Hari K Prasad of NetIndia, (P) Ltd., Hyderabad along with Alex J Halderman of University of Michigan and Ropp Gonggrip a hacker from Holland, claimed that EVMs are not tamper-proof. His claim was based on his research conducted on an EVM procured clandestinely (since EVMs are under the custody of EC and access to them is not possible without EC’s permission).

While EC denied Hari Prasad’s claim, he was arrested in Aug 2010 on the grounds that he stole government property. The then Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla claimed that the findings by Hari Prasad are not reliable. While delivering a lecture in Asian College of Journalism in Nov 2010 , Chawla claimed that EVMs are tamper-proof. He said that no one could prove before EC that EVMs can be manipulated. He contended that from the beginning of the electoral process to the time election results are declared, EVMs are held under strict vigil of the EC and security forces. So there is no possibility of any person/ organization confiscating the EVMs and manipulating the results. If no one could prove that EVMs can be tampered with, in the presence of EC, how the results can be manipulated, he argues. On the question of whether EVMs can be preloaded before elections, he says that since no commercial software is used in EVMs and since the manufacturing of these units is undertaken by public sector companies and embedded chipsets are used, preloading is impossible.

2004 general elections are a turning point for the Indian election scenario. A total of 5398 candidates contested the elections and about 39 crore votes were polled. This gigantic electoral process was held in four rounds spanning three weeks using 10.25 lakh EVMs. But because of the EVMs the poll results were declared in just one day whereas it used to take more time when elections were paper based. The total amount of paper saved in the process is estimated to be around 8000 metric ton.

There were other benefits of EVMs. Booth capturing, an endemic problem in Indian elections is virtually eliminated as EVMs are configured to register only five votes per minute. Earlier in ballot paper elections, miscreants used to capture a poll booth and stuff ballot boxes with votes in favour of their candidate. This whole exercise used to take a very small amount of time, and they could flee the booth before police reinforcements arrived. But because of the EVMs only 150 votes can be cast in half an hour, this discourages booth capturing practices.

Another benefit of EVMs is that it reduces the incidence of invalid votes. In paper ballots, a voter had to stamp his vote on the symbol of the candidate he favoured. Many a times voters used to fold the paper in a wrong pattern, inadvertently marking two candidates, resulting in disqualification. This possibility is eliminated in the EVMs as a voter has to just press a button and the vote would register. Since the display on the EVMs is quite prominent it is also easier for an illiterate voter to easily choose his candidate .

These benefits of using EVMs have attracted attention of the Election Commissions world over, who are looking forward to introduce these machines in their countries. While at the same time this issue has also attracted serious objections from activists and academics. In Aug 2010 condemning the arrest of Hari Prasad, a group of IT experts from US claimed that EVMs are (like any other software embedded devices) not tamper proof and requested EC not to use them. They argue that the future of Indian democracy depends on the issue of EVM’s safety and the surety that they cannot be tampered with.

Even national parties like BJP have expressed their concern about the reliability of the EVMs. BJP has constituted a committee of its own to look into the allegations made by various groups, and ascertain reliability of these machines.

The success of the democratic process in the country depends on the faith that voters have in the process of elections and EC’s role as a fair referee. With the allegations flowing in thick and fast from the various quarters and EC’s persistent denial that EVMs can be manipulated, the faith of the common voters in the very process of Indian elections is at stake. To ensure that the democratic practices developed overtime in India are maintained, EC should help resolve the issue, rather than adopting a belligerent posture of denial.

Meanwhile the debate on utilising technology in the world’s biggest democratic process continues.

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