Opposition’s back-to-ballot campaign against EVMs gathers steam
Opposition parties are planning to join hands on an issue they consider critical to the outcome of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections—asking the Election Commission to revert from EVMs to ballot papers
Even as Opposition parties explore the feasibility of a united front, a parallel exercise is on to join hands on an issue which they consider to be far more critical to the outcome of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
In focus are the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). Many Opposition parties and voters have serious doubts about the reliability of EVMs. Efforts are on to renew the demand for a return to the old paper ballot system of voting for the next election.
A day after the Gorakhpur and Phulpur byelection results were announced, victorious Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav told newsmen: “We won. But the old ballot paper system was much better. It enabled people to vote with much more passion and to express their anger through the ballot box”.
He then added: "The victory margins of our candidates would have been much higher with paper ballots. Most voters in rural areas needed help to cast their votes on EVM machines. In some booths, the machines malfunctioned. In several EVM machines, votes had already been cast even before polling began. A lot of time was wasted in many polling booths to sort out the glitches”.
At the plenary session of the Congress Party on Saturday, the draft political resolution echoed Akhilesh Yadav’s view—there should be a return to paper ballots. The resolution said: “There are apprehensions among the political parties and the people over the misuse of EVMs to manipulate the outcome which is often contrary to the popular verdict".
The official Congress line was made clear—the Election Commission must revert to paper balloting for the 2019 general election. This alone would restore credibility to the election process.
Several other parties, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Aam Aadmi Party, have from time to time also raised serious doubts about vulnerability of EVMs.
Akhilesh Yadav: “The victory margins of our candidates [in Gorakhpur and Phulpur] would have been much higher with paper ballots. Most voters in rural areas needed help to cast their votes on EVM machines. In some booths, the machines malfunctioned. In several EVM machines, votes had already been cast even before polling began. A lot of time was wasted in many polling booths to sort out the glitches”
Exactly one year ago, Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati had expressed serious doubts about the reliability of EVM machines. Reacting to the results of the UP assembly elections, in which her party’s tally came down from 80 to just 19 seats out of 403, Mayawati alleged: “BJP has got this victory through tampering of the EVMs. This smacks of dishonesty, fraud and murder of democracy”.
She asserted that her party workers and supporters had told her that they voted for BSP, “but the votes went to ‘kamal’...they are wondering as to how this could have happened”. The ‘kamal’, or lotus, is BJP’s election symbol. Mayawati lodged a complaint before the Election Commission and demanded a probe.
The demand was rejected the very next day. The Commission cited earlier judgments by the High Courts of Madras, Kerala, Karnataka and Mumbai, where the use of EVMs was upheld.
The Election Commission has repeatedly asserted that EVMs are tamper-proof. The official stand is—“EVM hardware and software cannot be altered in any way. Measures have been taken to ensure that voting machines are both mechanically and electronically protected to prevent any tampering or manipulation whatsoever”.
Opposition gathering evidence for fresh campaign against EVMs
Opposition parties are exploring the possibility of launching another campaign to persuade the Election Commission to rethink its rigid stand and to consider bringing back paper ballots, at least in sensitive constituencies in key states, in order to ensure that there is a public perception that elections will be held in a free and fair manner.
This time, however, the Opposition parties are well aware that they would have to come out with fresh evidence about the vulnerability of EVMs to hacking and other forms of software and hardware manipulation. The process of gathering such facts, data and global expert opinion is underway. Indications are that in the coming weeks, a formal (and joint) representation would be presented to the Election Commission in this regard.
One of the expert opinions that could form part of the overall presentation is a transcript of video testimony of noted American computer science professor. J Alex Halderman’s research focuses on computer security and privacy, and he has studied voting machines and tested and verified that they can indeed be hacked by outside actors. In the US election, systems and methodology vary across states. Several use a mix of voting machines and paper ballots.
In his testimony before the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Russian interference in the 2016 US Elections, Halderman had made several pertinent points, including the following:
- The key lesson from the 2016 presidential elections is that threats to security of voting machines are real
- Vulnerable voting machines and paperless systems need to be replaced with optical scanners and paper ballots, as paper provides a resilient physical record of the vote that simply can’t be compromised by a cyberattack or hacking
- Routine audits are needed to check that election results are accurate, by inspecting enough paper ballots to tell whether computer results are right
- Election systems should be strengthened against both vote tampering and sabotage by applying cyber-security best practices and conducting comprehensive threat assessments.
Detailed technical evidence behind Halderman’s assessment that “the threat of hacking is real” are being analysed in India. A wealth of other material is also being examined and compiled.
A lot depends on whether all parties across the non-NDA spectrum join the clamour for a freeze on EVMs, even if temporarily, for the 2019 polls. That alone would compel Nirvachan Sadan to pay heed to the demand for a fair election free of the clouds of doubt and suspicion. A lot would also depend on the quality of the fresh evidence and arguments put forward by the combined Opposition in what appears to be a last determined attempt to level the electoral playing field.
One Samajwadi leader said: “We hope the Election Commission heeds our call this time. Otherwise it will be futile to strive for Opposition consensus on avoiding vote-splitting candidates”.
By the look of it, the EVM saga in India is by no means over.
- Election Commission
- Akhilesh Yadav
- Bahujan Samaj Party
- Samajwadi Party
- Communist Party of India (Marxist)
- Aam Aadmi Party
- cyber attacks
- Electronic Voting Machines
- ballot paper
- 2019 Lok Sabha elections
- Uttar Pradesh assembly election
- Congress Plenary 2018
- J Alex Halderman
- United States Senate
- Russian interference
- 2016 US Elections