NH Exclusive: Prof Philip Stark of Berkeley speaks to Ashis Ray on Indian EVM and VVPAT

A Statistics Professor at Berkeley who’s done extensive work on election integrity and electronic systems explains how electronic voting systems are flawed and get hacked and why an audit is necessary

NH Exclusive: Prof Philip Stark of Berkeley speaks to Ashis Ray on Indian EVM and VVPAT
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NH Web Desk

In an exclusive video interview to Ashis Ray in London, Prof Philip Stark from Berkeley explains why poll audits are necessary to ensure the integrity of the voting system. Prof Stark explains that all electronic voting systems are hackable. Even when the machine is not connected to the Internet, external devices used to load data and information about candidates, parties etc. to the Memory can be used to plant bugs and malware.

The video interview can be watched here:

Prof Stark, who had studied the US Presidential election in 2016 as well as 2020 pointed out that hacking could also involve deleting name of voters from the electoral roll or changing the address of the voters, so that they are not permitted to cast their votes and are disenfranchised. Theoretically, it is also possible to add names to the electoral roll, he says to underscore the necessity of keeping the data safe till an audit is conducted.

Prof Stark also points out that at the time of assembling the machines there could be hardware placed that can lead to either accidental bugs or ‘supply chain hacking’.

Asked specifically to comment on the Indian Electronic Voting Machines, he says that according to his knowledge and understanding, they are unsafe and the VVPAT units introduced in 2019 to keep a paper trail are also not fool-proof.

Here are some of his observations on the Indian EVM and the VVPAT:

  • There is no opportunity to catch the errors made by the machine or the voters; once the button is pushed, it’s done. The fact that the voter gets a glimpse of the VVPAT isn’t enough to ensure that it correctly reflects what the voter selected.
  • Firstly, the paper is not available in the voter’s hand, it appears behind a glass box and then is automatically deposited. So even if the voters notice that votes are not cast in the right place, they cannot stop it. Secondly, the voters’ interaction with the EVM is not to be witnessed by anybody so there is no way for the voter to provide evidence that the machine showed an erroneous choice. There is no way to catch the machine in the act. To my knowledge there is also no dispute resolution mechanism in India even if a large number of voters complain that the machine did not match the selection they made on the device.
  • Another aspect is that the paper trail should be kept trustworthy throughout the process till the time a manual audit is done to make sure that the results on EVM match a manual tabulation of the paper record. I do not think there is adequate safeguards in place to ensure that. Finally, I am not aware of any provision to manually inspect an adequacy large random sample of the VVPAT to ensure that an accurate tabulation of VVPAT would announce the same winners that the EVMs announced.
  • A system where the vast majority of voters hand mark the ballots eliminiating the electronics would be a better safeguard. Secondly, if a tabulation is done based on the paper trail, and if they were kept secured, then the paper trail can be used for electronic tabulation manually. A good system in USA is paper ballots, optically scanned and tabulated, kept secured, manually audited and so on. I understand EVMs are used for efficiency, but once electronics are introduced between the voter and the durable record of voter intent, you have introduced a security hole, that I do not know how to plug.

Prof Stark had warned in 2020 that those jurisdictions in the US that relied mainly on electronic systems, without a trail of paper ballots for cross-checking the results, provided “lots of points of vulnerability.”

Eleven states in the US, he had said, had outsourced their results, reporting to a firm in Spain that was in bankruptcy.

He had then said that the most secure system comprised the “three Cs”: creating a trail of hand-marked paper ballot, curating those ballots in a trustworthy manner and statistically checking the electronically-generated tallies against the paper ballots.

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