Why EVMs are ‘inferior’

Apprehensions of EVM tampering before and after every election have challenged its reliability. Many feel that the Election Commission should look for alternatives like going back to paper ballot

PTI Photo
PTI Photo

NH Web Desk

The German Constitutional Court in 2009 ruled against Electronic Voting Machines, forcing the country to scrap EVMs. Germany returned to paper ballots.

The German court ruled that any electoral system must pass three tests, namely transparency, verifiability and secrecy. The EVM does not allow voters to confirm if the vote has been recorded correctly. An electronic display of the voter’s selection, the court was informed, may not be the same as the vote stored electronically in the EVM’s memory.

While this was the reason why the Supreme Court of India in 2009-10 directed the Election Commission to introduce the Voter Verifiable Paper Trail (VVPAT), it merely solves part of the problem. It confirms the voter’s choice but it does not guarantee correct counting of votes. An electronic recounting is absurd but even when counting errors are suspected, there can be no redressal. Not even when the number of votes counted by the EVM is more or less than the VVPAT slips.

The Election Commission of India has added to the complication by restricting VVPAT auditing to one randomly selected booth per constituency. Statistically, it has been pointed out by experts, this is both insignificant and unrealistic. This sample size would fail to detect faulty EVMs 99% of the times, they have pointed out.

Unless VVPAT auditing is done in the entire constituency if even one EVM is found to have malfunctioned, the purpose of ensuring integrity of the voting process cannot be guaranteed. The ECI’s decision, which it appears to be in no mood to revise, ensures that VVPAT units remain ornamental, providing a veneer of integrity without much substance.

Even on secrecy, the EVM is vulnerable. Booth-wise counting of votes allow political parties to identify voting behaviour in every booth, making voters susceptible to political pressure. In paper ballots, the ECI could mix ballots cast in a number of booths before counting. The problem can be solved by using the Totaliser machine which would enable counting of votes recorded on EVMs in as many as 14 booths.

As of now, malfunction of EVMs in registering votes is detectable. But suspicion of tampering can neither be proved nor disproved, allowing the suspicion to linger

But although the Election Commission of India itself had recommended the use of Totaliser, the Government has turned it down on the ground that it is important for political parties to know about specific voting behaviour in booths so as to enable it to take ‘corrective actions’ !

“The democratic legitimacy of the election demands that the election events be controllable so that... unjustified suspicion can be refuted,” stated the German court. But while the Election Commission of India maintains that doubts expressed on EVMs are all unjustified, it refuses to engage with the critics.

Since it is nearly impossible to detect EVM-tampering, especially when a few million units are deployed in a country of India’s size, the controversy boils down to trust. But trust in the EVMs, which cannot be examined on suspicion, is a tall order.

As of now, malfunction of EVMs in registering votes is detectable. But suspicion of tampering can neither be proved nor disproved, allowing the suspicion to linger.

EVMs allow for faster counting and declaration of results. But with the Election Commission taking weeks to conduct a general election, and the gap between polling and counting often being rather long, this advantage is more cosmetic than real.

There are two measures that the Election Commission can take to restore trust and allay ‘unjustified suspicion’ about EVMs. It can decide for VVPAT auditing in a large enough number of booths, say 40% of the booths. And it can invite an independent group of scientists and geeks to examine the EVMs.

If both these exercises show no discrepancy, then the ‘unjustified doubts’ will be allayed once and for all. And neither exercise costs too much of money or too much of time to make the Election Commission lose its sleep.

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