To restore confidence in the EVM, Election Commission must reveal the make & model of the chip

Not enough for the Election Commission to claim that EVMs are one-time programmable. Besides making details of the microchip public, there are other steps needed to restore confidence in the EVM

Representative Image (Photo courtesy- social media)
Representative Image (Photo courtesy- social media)

Kaushik Majumdar

Since 2004, parliamentary and assembly elections have been conducted through Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). It was claimed that the EVM reduced the cost of holding elections and eliminated incidence of capturing of booths and ballots; but at the same time it reduced transparency of the system and confidence in its accuracy.

A number of far more technologically advanced democracies in the world continue to vote by paper ballots. Germany adopted electronic voting in the national election in 2005 but it was declared unconstitutional by its top court in 2009, because voters had to trust the system blindly without fully understanding how the votes cast were being counted for, despite the fact that the court could not find any flaw in the 2005 election. Yet voting with paper ballots was restored by the court.

In India on the other hand, the EVM was further upgraded in 2019 by introducing a printed paper trail to be seen by the voter for seven seconds to ascertain if the vote cast has been accepted by the machine correctly.

There is a significant difference, however, between watching a symbol through a tiny window for 7 seconds and looking at a paper in hand for a much longer duration. A majority of technologically ‘not-so-smart’ voters will undoubtedly feel more assured with the latter.

Serious concerns were also raised in the past about impartiality of the polling staff. In case there is collusion between polling staff and political agents (with smart phones wide ranging communications are possible) it is possible not to register the votes of identified voters by controlling the control unit of the EVM, which may go unnoticed in many cases. In the Lok Sabha election of 2019 widespread malfunctioning or suspected manipulation of EVM was reported. This would have been far more difficult in the case of paper ballots.

Also, in different constituencies parties occupy different positions in the EVM according to the alphabetically ordered list of candidates dictated by their names. Each EVM is to be customized for these positions before the polling, with the names written inside the machine by a laptop loaded with a software, the job performed by a technically trained person.

Tall claims have been made by the Election Commission of India (ECI) about the foolproof security of the EVMs. However, a vital information that is missing is the make and model of the microchip(s) used in the EVMs.

This information is required to clarify if the chip can or cannot be rewritten more than once. A mere claim that the chip is only one time programmable is not convincing, particularly when the chip is writable before every polling to configure the machine according to the candidate list in each constituency.

Equally important is the security of the laptop with which the EVM is configured. This laptop is being used to write into the EVM microchip. Although an EVM is a standalone machine, these laptops are not. It is possible to hack the EVM by hacking the laptop.

To restore confidence in the EVM, Election Commission must reveal the make & model of the chip

In order to make our electronic voting system more trustworthy, the (EC) should come up with sufficient technical details about the EVMs, particularly about its microchips (make and model must be made public) and about the security of the laptops used to customize them before the voting.

Both Union Government and the state governments regularly receive frequent intelligence briefings of the political situation at the booth level. If an important party organiser happens to be an important government functionary, he would have easy access to these reports and it won’t be hard for him/her to identify sensitive booths, in which a small deviation can have decisive effect on the results. It is worth noting that nine eminent citizens including a retired supreme court judge, retired civil servants, a scientist with domain expertise, journalists and others came up with a detailed analytical report on the Indian EVMs in April 2021.

Regarding ECI’s challenge to hack EVM kept in its office the report clearly states, “Verifiability cannot be established by inviting people to hack the hardware system, as the ECI has done. EC’s challenge for demonstrating hacks is not meaningful, not only because sufficient time and access to tools were denied, but also because something has not yet been hacked provides no guarantee whatsoever that it can not be hacked…”

“...Indeed, there are numerous examples of EVM hacking all over the world, including an earlier version of the Indian EVM. .”

Introduction of EVM didn’t necessarily reduce the time. In fact, in the EVM era we are observing much longer phases of polling than the pre-EVM era. Cost of security of the whole election process has also not gone down, if not enhanced significantly.

Election rallies and campaigns have become much more flamboyant and expensive. In fact, online and offline election campaigning (not tied to particular elections and therefore does not come under model codes of conduct) has become a year-round process, which is not possible without steady flow of funds.

According to a Bloomberg report Lok Sabha election expenditure by modest and conservative estimates has gone up from Rs. 9,000 Crore in 1998 to Rs. 55,000 Crore in 2019, taking Rs. 1 (1998) = Rs. 3.62 (2019), the election expenditure has gone up by Rs. 22456 Crore in 2019 over that of 1998 election after adjusting for inflation.

Arguably a paper ballot election could have been conducted at less cost despite numerous allegations of rigging, and which could have been much more transparent and convincing and ensured greater accuracy. In high-tech electronic voting rigging does remain invisible, which obviously would lead to fewer allegations of malpractices.

At the end of the day, we all want a transparent voting system which we can rely on without any intricate technological knowhow. To ensure this the ECI may adopt the following at policy level.

All machines will have the exact same code to be written only one time in the factory, which must be made public, and no further inputting will be allowed. From voting unit to control unit, the voting signal (pulse after a vote is cast) will travel by plain wire without any computing interface.

Each button of the voting unit will be connected to one pin or input slot of the control unit by a unique wire. Thus, there will be as many wires as there will be candidates contesting in that constituency. All control units throughout the country will have a fixed, sufficiently large number, say 64, of input pins.

If, say, there are ten candidates in the constituency those ten candidates with their respective symbols will appear in the order set by ECI policy, but the input pin allocation at the control unit for them will be chosen randomly by a lottery or roulette machine in the presence of representatives of all the candidates not more than 72 hours ahead of polling.

Once the pins are allocated the wires connecting the voting machine with the control unit will be sealed in the presence of the representatives. Then they will be put under maximum possible physical security.

Likewise, randomization will have to be introduced at all possible steps in order to destroy any possible ordering that might have been sneaked into the system without the knowledge of the authority to favour any of the stakeholders directly or indirectly.

For example, trucks waiting to be loaded with machines in the factory will have to be sent to destinations chosen by a lottery or roulette machine. Each truck may be loaded with machines chosen by lottery from different godowns and even from different stacks of the same godown the same way. Similarly, they will have to be randomly dispatched to different constituencies.

At every stage the lottery will have to be conducted in the presence of representatives of all the stakeholders. During the entire duration of polling in the booth, the sealed wires connecting voting unit to control unit should be visible from end to end to the representatives of the candidates. Since throughout the constituency each candidate will be allocated a unique pin or input slot in the control unit the counting will be straightforward.

The onus is really on the Election Commission to ensure public confidence in the electoral system. It is safe to point out that at the moment the level of public confidence in the electoral system is pretty low.

(The writer is Professor, Computer and Communication Sciences Division at Indian Statistical Institute, Bangalore)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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