Can we count on the electronic voting machines?

Although the Election Commission of India maintains that its EVMs are ‘unhackable’, experts and even commoners are not convinced. And they have reasons for their scepticism

Officials examine EVMs before polling for the municipal election in UP’s Ghaziabad, May 2023  (Photo: Getty)
Officials examine EVMs before polling for the municipal election in UP’s Ghaziabad, May 2023 (Photo: Getty)

Ashis Ray

Electronic voting is unconstitutional because the average citizen could not be expected to understand the exact steps involved in the recording and tallying of votes by the electronic voting machines (EVMs),’ ruled the German Federal Constitutional Court in 2009.

As a result of this landmark judgement, Germany—technologically one of the most advanced nations in the world—banned the use of EVMs.

Ulrich Wiesner, a physicist and software engineer, who had filed the petition before the Constitutional Court, noted: “In the coming years we will be able to observe how authoritarian states in particular will use the ‘potential’ of electronic elections. The electronic elections will help rulers ostensibly hold democratic elections without having to leave the election results to chance.”

Wiesner told this scribe that his concern and thus his application to the court stemmed from Germany’s horrifying experience in the 1930s and 1940s, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party established a fascist dictatorship through adult franchise.

He asserted: “When the Election Commission of India claims the (voting) machines are not riggable… 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, including vote stealing functionality, that is only activated under certain circumstances and would not be spotted in tests.”

France, Belgium, Ireland and The Netherlands did away with EVMs after experimenting with them. In Asia, Japan and Singapore, two of the most advanced nations in this continent, have stuck to traditional paper ballots. Recently, Bangladesh decided to dispense with EVMs.

Unlawful methods were allegedly employed in the 2000 and 2016 United States presidential elections to favour the winners. Though EVMs are not used in America, the US-based Verified Voting Foundation (VVF) published a resolution passed by over 1,000 experts across multiple countries, which recorded: ‘Election integrity cannot be assured without openness and transparency. But an election without voter-verifiable ballots (physical proof of voting) cannot be open and transparent.

‘The voter cannot know that the vote eventually reported is the same as the vote cast, nor can candidates or others gain confidence in the accuracy of the election by observing the voting and the vote counting processes.

‘There is no reliable way to detect errors in recording votes or deliberate election rigging with these machines. Hence, the results of any election conducted using these machines are open to question.’ 

In 2010, a BJP leader and Rajya Sabha MP G.V.L. Narasimha Rao wrote a book titled Democracy at Risk! Can We Trust our Electronic Voting Machines? It was dedicated to the citizens of India, with an emphatic statement: ‘They deserve a fully transparent and verifiable electoral system.’ The foreword was by BJP stalwart L.K. Advani, former deputy prime minister of India and former party president.

Advani was BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, which the BJP lost. Advani wrote, ‘I regard it significant that Germany, technologically one of the most advanced countries... has become so wary of EVMs as to ban their use altogether.’

In the same book, David Dill, professor of computer science at Stanford University, stated: ‘Electronic voting machines provide no evidence during or after the election to convince a sceptic that the election results are accurate.’

Dill went on to emphasise: ‘…it is not feasible to prevent malicious changes to the machines’ hardware or software. Electronic voting machines are especially vulnerable to malicious changes by insiders such as designers, programmers, manufacturers, maintenance technicians, etc.

Of course, these problems are magnified enormously when the design of the machines is held secret from independent reviewers.’ On 8 June 2019, Professor Dill informed this writer by email: “When someone claims that a system is ‘unhackable’, I immediately suspect their competence. Competent security people are very cautious about such claims.”

He asked if the Election Commission of India (ECI) had “published the designs of the machines? Have there been independent security reviews? Have the results of those reviews been published?” The answer to all of the above was in the negative.

Rao argues in the book: ‘There are several instances that we have come across where machines have “switched” votes between candidates and have even “produced” votes that were never cast!’ And that ‘several personal accounts of senior politicians [had] been approached by electronic “fixers” demanding hefty sums to fix elections in their favour’.

He continues: ‘It’s not merely that our EVMs, like any other in the world, are prone to tampering in any number of ways by external hackers, but that the more insidious and ever-present danger which the ECI refuses to acknowledge is “insider fraud”—by any of the thousands of “authorised” personnel having access to the machines.

‘These include the Indian developers and manufacturers of the machines, the vendors supplying the components including the foreign companies who have been assigned the security-sensitive job of fusing the software onto the microchips sourced from them, the local officials who have the custody of the machines before, during and after elections, the technicians assigned for maintenance, repair and testing of the machines, etc.’

As he rightly points out: ‘In our system of representative democracy, elections provide the only occasion when the people directly exercise their sovereign power. Immediately thereafter this power is ceded to the elected representatives. If this sacred power is vitiated by a voting system of dubious integrity open to insidious fraud, it is evident that our democracy is seriously endangered.’

Although presumably wedded to religion— for he is a lawmaker of the BJP—he jokingly writes: ‘All this begs a simple question: are we running “faith-based” elections that we should “trust” all these insiders and not question their actions shrouded in mystery?’

Since the BJP came to power in 2014, Rao has been conspicuously silent on the subject. On 19 May 2020, this scribe e-mailed him asking whether he stood by what he said in his book. Rao has not responded till date.

While India has progressed impressively in terms of developing indigenous scientific knowhow, it is ridiculous to suggest it has invented better and more secure EVMs than countries at the cutting edge of computer science, for an EVM is nothing but a computer. An overwhelming section of Indian voters are unaware of the shortcomings of EVMs. Besides, Indian media has singularly failed in its duty by being lackadaisical in fervently raising such a vital issue pertaining to democracy.

And the judiciary, too, has neither adopted a proactive policy nor treated the worries of informed citizens with due seriousness.

Pompous statements from the ECI that EVMs are ‘tamper-proof ’ are unscientific and evidentially unsustainable. The onus is clearly on the Commission to prove beyond all doubt that the machines cannot be manipulated in any way.

Professor Dill is of the opinion that advocates of EVMs need to “show that it is difficult to commit undetected election fraud” and that “no claim of ‘untamperability’ should be accepted unless the methods are disclosed and debated openly with experts on the other side”. T

he ECI’s contention about Indian EVMs being ‘standalone’ equipment is being economical with the truth. Professor Philip Stark of University of California, Berkeley, a campaigner for ‘evidence-based elections’, exclusively told this publication in 2021 that EVMs are ‘unsafe’ and the accompanying voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) machines introduced in 2019 are also ‘not foolproof ’.

He explained that even when EVMs are not connected to the internet, external devices utilised to upload data and information about candidates and political parties can be exploited to plant bugs and malware. Professor Stark’s suggestion of inserting ticked ballots into a modern scanner-cum-tabulator, while retaining a hard copy, is a secure and sensible solution.

On 27 January 2022, the ECI wrote to chief electoral officers of all states and several Union territories recalling 37 per cent of all VVPATs deployed in India. They were advised to ‘mark the VVPATs… as “Defective” in EVM Management System’ and to send them back to their manufacturers Bharat Electronics Limited and Electronic Corporation of India Limited.

When the ECI’s circular was reported by the press, it hurriedly denied the VVPATs were defective and said they needed ‘preventive maintenance’. A need for prevention generally only arises when there is a danger.

The fact is these machines formed the basis of determining Indian national and state elections between 2019 and 2021. Therefore, can the ECI certify that the results in these polls were totally accurate? Which raises the question: how did the ruling BJP lose in the just-concluded Karnataka elections?

Polling is managed by the state’s bureaucracy and the police. Even if interference is attempted remotely, it requires the election authorities, bureaucrats and other officials to be completely unaware or at least partly complicit. This, arguably, can only happen if the administration at the Centre and the state are in the hands of one party and that party has ‘sympathisers’ in some key election officials and security forces to carry out its mala fide intentions.

In other words, a ‘double-engine’ situation with government employees and cops hand-in-glove with their political masters. In certain states, such as in Karnataka recently, this did not happen for various reasons, including a huge gap in the vote percentage of the BJP and the rival Congress.

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