What India can learn from the clamour for paper ballots in the US
India, which swears by the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM), has been served another warning by the collapse of the electronic vote counting system in the state of Iowa.
The United States, the world’s most developed nation, is having serious problems with its electronic voting system that India cannot afford to ignore. The last few days have been so traumatic in the state of Iowa that it has triggered demands for a total manual recount and for a return to the “good old paper ballot”.
Just three headlines in influential newspapers convey the message. One says: “Don’t entrust Democracy to the Techies”. The other says: “The Iowa election fiasco proved one thing: over-reliance on electronic machines in the election process makes Democracy more opaque”. The third was a plaintive cry: “Please let’s go back to paper voting”.
What happened during counting of votes in Iowa on Monday can be summed up in three words - Spectacular Software Glitch.
Just like what the Election Commission of India keeps repeating, those in charge of the primary election in the State of Iowa had claimed that the electronic voting system was “fail-safe" and "tamper-proof”.
But some of America’s leading politicians – like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, all of whom are feverishly trying to win the nomination to become the Democratic Party candidate against Donald Trump in the US presidential election in November – were stunned when the results of Monday’s election caucus were withheld because a computer application crashed.
What followed was utter chaos. And delays. More delays. And conspiracy theories.Even three days later, on Thursday, 100 percent results have not been announced. What is worse for the leading contenders is that a relatively unknown candidate, Pete Buttigieg, narrowly emerged as the winner late on Thursday.
Being a former mayor of a tiny town in Indiana State called South Bend, nobody had given Buttigieg even a ghost of a chance and all opinion polls had predicted he would come fourth or fifth. Indeed, most reporters and anchors are freely admitting they can’t even pronounce his name correctly - is it “BUTT-i-judge” or “BOOT-edge-edge”? Nobody knows for sure even now.
What is known about him is that he is openly gay and makes no secret that he is married to a man called Chasten Glezman. In ultra liberal America that is not a taboo but many are worried whether he is the right Democratic Party candidate to confront and defeat Donald Trump in the November election.
There is, of course a very long way to go before a party candidate is finally chosen. Iowa is just the beginning of a grueling three month nomination process of holding primary elections in at least 40 of the 50 States in America.
More to the point, as far as India is concerned, is the spectacular failure of the electronic voting system in Iowa. Strictly speaking, it was not a failure during actual voting - Iowa practices a very old-fashioned and very complicated method which has nothing to do with the computer age. It was during counting that the entire system collapsed.
The United States, which boasts of being the world’s oldest democracy, has had major election counting disasters in the past. The most shocking was in the 2004 presidential elections when John Kerry was defeated by George Bush in controversial circumstances and only after the Supreme Court took an even more controversial decision after weeks of delay. But what the latest Iowa fiasco has focused attention on is the hazard of relying on electronic devices and computer programmes to record and count votes.
The key learning, for India, is that electronic voting machines are opaque – only technically trained personnel understand how the software works and the lay public can have no idea what is going on leave no records unless there is a paper trail. But a paper trail is only rarely seen and only comes into play if there is a dispute or if something goes wrong with the electronic device.
For some strange reason, most people confuse “technology” with “progress”. In reality the two are no synonymous. There are myriad problems with computerized elections.
Here is what experts say: First, it covers up hidden errors, incompetence and even dishonesty. Paper ballots, on the other hand, are tried-and-true tabulation methods that are not hackable and do not require thousands of hours of labour to construct the digital infrastructure to use them.
Second, computers are opaque: A layperson cannot audit the code of an app or website and determine if it is being manipulated by bad actors anywhere along the line.
Third, the pro-EVM mindset means that there is a double standard for how we treat tech companies and people who work in tech, as opposed to those who do not. Many who work in tech earnestly believe they are changing the world or doing "good," as though merely writing code made one a moral person.
This idea is exploited by tech giants who advertise their business as synonymous with progress, something they get away with because in modern times we frequently think of "technology" and "progress" as connected ideas.