Should our tryst with EVMs end?
Dr A Surya Prakash

Many Indians, who are now used to electronic voting, are surprised to note that voters in the United Kingdom, who recently exercised their franchise in the parliamentary election, had to stamp their preference on ballot papers.They wonder why an advanced nation like the UK prefers this staid old method of voting when a nation like India has switched to electronic voting many years ago.But the UK is not the only western democracy to prefer the paper ballot to an Electronic Voting machines (EVM).Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and a majority of the states in the USA have either banned the use of EVMs or imposed stringent safeguards for their use.

The rejection of EVMs by these nations is prompted by concerns about the integrity of the election process when these machines are deployed. The inability of election authorities to convince courts and public opinion that these machines are tamper-proof has led governments to fall back on paper ballots. A notable instance is that of Germany, where, after much deliberation, the Federal Constitutional Court, banned the use of EVMs.

Given these developments in other countries, leaders of 13 political parties in India have recently written to the Election Commission (EC) and sought an all-party meeting to discuss whether EVMs are vulnerable to manipulation. This demand for a proper review of the deployment of EVMs came about after a group of international experts raised serious concerns about the credibility of the electoral process in India which is now wholly dependent on Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). These experts, who had traveled to India some months ago, laid their hands on an EVM used in the country and demonstrated the ways in which these machines could be hacked. This demonstration, which is now available on u-tube shows the vulnerability of EVMs and the easy ways in which electronic engineers can replace chips or alter programs to manipulate election results. Mr.Rop Gonggrijp, a computer hacker from Netherlands who hacked a machine on a live television show and became instrumental in the banning EVMs in his country, Dr.Alex Halderman, Professor of Computer Science, University of Michigan and an authority on electronic voting security and Mr.Hari K.Prasad, a noted “hactivist” from Hyderabad, who conducted the demonstration in front of a video camera have
also put together a research paper on the unreliability of voting machines.

These experts have demonstrated two ways in which the machine can be manipulated. In the first instance, they replace a small electronic component with another which is programmed to steal votes from other candidates and add them to the count of a particular candidate. This manoeuvre is carried out via a signal from a mobile phone.
In the second instance a pocket-sized electronic device is used to change the votes stored in the EVM after polling is over and before the counting of votes.

According to Mr.Gonggrijp and Dr.Halderman, EVMs can be tampered with either at the manufacturing stage or when they are stored in state capitals for deployment in elections or at the polling booths. They are convinced that Indian EVMs are no different from those that were deployed in Netherlands, Germany or Ireland, before they were discarded in those countries. One of the ways to rig an election is to introduce a Trojan in the display section of the control unit. This chip would give “fixed” results on the EVM screen. In other words, whatever the voters’ preference, the control unit would display numbers as per the hacker’s plan. Mr.Gonggrijp is a prominent campaigner for election transparency and verifiability and his technical opinion appears to have clinched the issue against electronic voting in Germany as well. “When the vote count happens inside a machine and there is no way in which the result can be cross-checked, the election ceases to be transparent” he says. The lack of transparency appears to be the Achilles heel of electronic voting. Nobody knows what goes on inside those machines.

Dr.Till Jaeger, the attorney who argued against the use of EVMs before the German Federal Constitutional Court leading to the court order banning EVMs in Germany was another expert who was in India recently to share his views on the legal and constitutional issues that crop up when EVMs are used. The German Constitutional Court, he said, had held the deployment of machines as unconstitutional. It said the Constitution emphasizes the public nature of elections “and requires all essential steps of an election to be open to public scrutiny”.

While all these experts are categorical in their rejection of electronic voting devices, EVMs enjoy a great deal of credibility and public trust in India. This is so because the campaign about the unreliability of these machines is yet to get off the ground. However, politicians of various hues appear to be wary of these machines and have even accused rivals of “manipulating” them, albeit without a shred of evidence to establish mischief.

These concerns have now come to the fore following the demonstration to prove the “hackability” of these machines. Leaders of 13 political parties have written to the Election Commission on April 24, 2010 and sought an all-party meeting to discuss the efficacy of EVMs. They have said that EVMs have been banned by many democracies as storing voting data only electronically is considered non-transparent, unsafe, unreliable and prone to manipulations. “The gold standard throughout the world today is that there must be a verifiable physical record of voting for all concerned to repose confidence in the election results”. The leaders said there were fears of the possibility of tampering with the software embedded in the machine and “some experts have demonstrated how such tampering can be done”. Among the signatories to this letter are leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Community Party of India, Telugu Desam, Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United) and the AIADMK.

This move by political parties comes after unsuccessful attempts by some citizens to get the Electon Commission to have an open mind in regard to EVMs. Citizens like Mr.Hari Prasad have been demanding that the Election Commission (EC) offer opportunities for persons like him to demonstrate the vulnerability of EVMs. According to him, the commission initially went along with the idea but developed cold feet and abruptly stopped one such exercise by him and his colleagues last September.

Two other Indians who have plunged into this campaign are Dr.Subramanian Swamy, whose petition against EVMs is currently before the Delhi High Court and Mr.G.V.L.Narasimha Rao, noted election analyst and author of Democracy at Risk – Can We Trust Our Electronic Voting Machines?. This book outlines the story of EVMs in India, Europe and the USA and describes how the non-response of the EC to questions raised by Mr.Gonggrijp and Mr.Hariprasad has contributed in no small measure to the growing concern in political parties about the reliability of voting machines.

After talking to experts, Rao lists eight situations in which EVMs can be rigged. The EC has sought to counter these arguments by saying that the Indian EVMs are standalone machines which are not part of any network. Therefore, any surmise based on operating system based EVMs would be completely erroneous. These arguments have been countered by Dr.Ulrich Wiesner, a physicist and software engineer, who was the petitioner before the Constitutional Court in Germany. In a statement that is part of the rejoinder affidavit filed by Dr.Swamy in the Delhi High Court, Dr.Wiesner has said that EVMs in Netherlands, Germany and Ireland were also standalone machines with no connection to the internet. He says “it is common sense that someone who has sufficient access to open the machines and replace the software or hardware can implement virtually any functionality ……that would not be spotted by tests”.

Given these developments and the body of evidence produced by experts, it is now up to the Election Commission to respond to the doubts that are raised in regard to the efficacy of EVMs. Since the Election Commission is a public body, it will have to function in a transparent manner and satisfactorily answer the questions raised by these citizens, experts and political leaders so that all stake holders retain their confidence in the democratic process.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
8 + 0 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us