The devil(s) in the EVM, and why VVPAT slips need counting
The debate is no longer about EVM versus ballot papers. The demand now is to secure and count VVPAT slips
Isn’t the EVM just a machine, a standalone electronic equipment with no outside interference? That was, for a long time, the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) response to doubts about EVM manipulations. The argument lost its edge after another piece of electronic equipment, the VVPAT (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail) was attached to the EVM, for the first time in the 2019 general election, following directions of the Supreme Court of India.
The EVM ceased to be a standalone machine, with the VVPAT being the device that now triggered the control unit of the EVM. Apart from a printer, the VVPAT also has a programmable SLU (Switch/Load Unit) which is programmed days before the actual election. The ECI has to wait for the scrutiny of all nominations and the last date for withdrawal of candidates before the SLU can be loaded with information about the candidates, their political parties and their symbols. The period between the last date of withdrawal and the actual polling is normally around 15 days, used for campaigning by the candidates.
Who loads the information, on which EVMs and for which booths is a secret. Since thousands of VVPAT machines — a million or more in general elections — are to be loaded within such a short window of time, it is a computerised process outsourced to dedicated companies with armies of computer engineers.
I have suggested counting 100 per cent of the VVPAT slips. Won’t take more than a day. But (it will) restore people’s confidence. That’s essential for credible electionsFormer chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi
The process and identity of the companies, their location and the identity of the engineers is known only to a small group of people in the government and ECI. While secrecy is quite possibly unavoidable, it is precisely because of this secrecy that an audit becomes necessary once the elections are over.
An investigation by independent journalist Meetu Jain for the Wire showed that the ECI exercises little control or supervision over the process. Government officials supervise the process and ensure that the VVPAT machines are loaded with the right information; that when a voter presses, say, the no. 1 on the ballot unit of the EVM, the VVPAT not only prints the name and party symbol next to no. 1 on the EVM but also transmits this information to the control unit of the EVM that is with the presiding officer.
Doubts arise because while a voter — having pressed one of the buttons on the ballot unit — can see the printed VVPAT slip for seven seconds to satisfy that her vote has been registered for the right candidate and party, she can never be sure that is the information being transmitted through the VVPAT to the control unit.
Computer engineers have weighed in to point out that the VVPAT can be programmed to print one set of information but transmit an entirely different set of information to the control unit. The VVPAT machine can be programmed to print the name and symbol of the party against no. 1 on the ballot unit but register the vote for the party listed at no. 3 while transmitting the information. It can also be programmed to transfer the ‘correct’ information of the first 50 or 100 votes cast for the candidate at no. 1 and thereafter register votes cast for no. 1 to no. 3.
It is admittedly a theoretical possibility, a potential threat; but mischief cannot be ruled out in the absence of transparency or post-election audits. The voter can never be certain that the three devices together have correctly registered and counted the vote cast by her.
This trust-deficit has reached a new peak with voices other than political parties speaking up against the EVM. Suspicions have been strengthened by the government dropping the fig leaf and taking over the task of appointing election commissioners.
The ECI already draws its staff from the government, on deputation or otherwise. It is dependent on the government for its finances and for security and polling personnel. Now, by virtue of the law passed by Parliament in the winter session, the prime minister and a Union minister of his choice will virtually appoint the election commissioners from a panel prepared by secretaries to the government.
This zealously ‘reformist’ government has shown no inclination to reform the Election Commission and make it truly an independent body with election commissioners appointed by an independent panel.
"I have suggested counting 100 per cent of the VVPAT slips. Won’t take more than a day. But (it will) restore people’s confidence. That’s essential for credible elections," posted former chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi last month, immediately raising the hackles of the BJP brigade.
Columnist and former BJP Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta countered by commenting, "Dr Quraishi may not be familiar with what happens to paper ballots in the local elections in West Bengal. He would profit from seeing some of the videos of the one-man-100-votes principle being applied in one of the many Trinamool stamping factories." The comment was completely misplaced because Quraishi had nowhere suggested that the country should go back to paper ballots.
The orchestrated campaign by the BJP’s army of trolls deliberately tried to shift the debate to ‘EVM vs paper ballot’ whereas the opposition I.N.D.I.A bloc had merely demanded the counting of the VVPAT slips and printing them with a normal printer instead of a thermal printer, so that the imprints do not vanish within a few weeks. Storing the VVPAT slips for a longer period would also be easier if the size of the slips is larger and would enable scrutiny, audit and accountability.
The demand was triggered by the omissions and commissions of the election commission itself, which had informed the Supreme Court that it had ‘destroyed’ the slips used in the 2019 general election barely four months after the results were declared in May 2019. This against the Conduct of Election Rules, which stipulate that "… used or printed VVPAT slips in any election... shall be retained for one year and shall thereafter be destroyed" (Rule 94b). In a communication on 24 September 2019 to chief electoral officers of all states and Union territories, the commission had ordered the "disposal of VVPAT printed paper slips".
Even as there is no explanation yet as to why the ECI destroyed the slips against its own rules, similar doubts have surfaced about EVM and VVPAT machines used in the five state elections in November 2023. Reports suggest that a large number of the machines have already been sent for "repairs and replacement" to the manufacturers. If the machines were not fit for use, why did the ECI use them is the question; and why the hurry to repair them without any audit or scrutiny?
Curiously, the ECI had received complaints of mismatch between EVM counts and VVPAT slips from at least eight different states and had actually ordered an inquiry in July. In November 2019 the inquiry was still on, per a reply to an RTI query. Despite this, the poll panel destroyed the slips in September.
Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, who hails from Madhya Pradesh, said after his party’s shock defeat in the assembly election in November, “We will only be reassured when the print-ed VVPAT slips are in our hands, and counted 100 per cent. That should not be an issue for the ECI.” His misgiv-ings have deepened in the wake of the poll panel denying time to oppositionparty delegations to discuss the issue. For the past six months, the parties had been seeking an appointment but the ECI has been unresponsive.
The Constitutional Conduct Group, a body of retired former civil servants of the all India and central services, and a citizens’ commission on elections, headed by retired Supreme Court justice Madan Lokur and aided by professors from IITs have in their reports pointed out the potential for mischief and manipulation of the existing system of storage, repair, maintenance and transportation of the machines.
A group of lawyers have petitioned the ECI for 50 EVM and VVPAT units so that it could be demonstrated how they can be tampered with. But the election commission has been deaf to their pleas. One of the lawyers has gone to the Supreme Court, with the hope he would be heard this January.
Political commentator Raju Parulekar sees a pattern. Everybody on the ground, he recalled, expected the RJD to sweep the election but the result gave a narrow victory to the NDA combine of BJP-JD(U)-LJP. The assembly election in Uttar Pradesh in 2022 was held against the backdrop of mismanagement of the Covid pandemic, dead bodies floating down the rivers, an economic slowdown and migrants returning home to joblessness. Yet, the BJP won the election.
I have no proof but I have doubts, partly because of reports that EVM machines have been recovered from private homes, private vehicles and from graveyards… so, my only request is for the ECI to end the trust deficit. Fix it if there is a problemSam Pitroda, Indian Overseas Congress
The Gujarat assembly election in 2022, Parulekar asserts, could not have gone so overwhelmingly to the BJP in the wake of anti-incumbency so strong that it had forced the BJP to change the entire cabinet and the chief minister. The result also flew against the BJP’s hard-fought and narrow win in the state in 2018. Nor is he convinced of the latest election results in Madhya Pradesh where the BJP — against all predictions, anti-incumbency and strong anti-BJP sentiment on the ground — polled almost nine per cent more votes than the Congress.
How could everyone be wrong but the EVMs right? Of late the trend, Parulekar says, is of sponsored opinion polls — where the sponsors’ names are never revealed — that first create a favourable mahaul for the BJP. The BJP’s publicity teams and social media blitz amplify these favourable numbers, which are given more ballast by a pliable media. The election commission then steps in, allows the BJP and its campaigners to get away with anything while pulling up and serving notices to the opposition. The EVM does its magic and the media comes up with alibis. The Ladli Behna Yojana in Madhya Pradesh was credited with swinging the election in BJP’s favour, but Parulekar refuses to buy it.
Sam Pitroda of the Indian Overseas Congress, who knows a thing or two about technology, says he has no proof that EVMs have been hacked. He has, however, been told by IIT and MIT professors, hackers in the US as well as security consultants abroad that it is doable, with some even claiming that they have done it.
Pitroda says he has also been approached by hackers who offered to manipulate the election results for a price. “I have no proof but I have doubts, partly because of reports that EVM machines have been recovered from private homes, private vehicles and from graveyards… so, my only request is for the ECI to end the trust deficit. Fix it if there is a problem”.
Parulekar also cites reports in December of a private home in Uttar Pradesh, where EVM and VVPAT machines were stored, having caught fire, damaging the machines. Most intriguingly, he said, there were reports that the house had no electricity connection and so there was no possibility of a short-circuit.