Election Commission’s juvenile and amateurish attempt to defend EVMs

Full page advertisements released by the ECI on Monday does nothing to dispel misgivings about EVMs and fails to state how VVPAT units decipher names and symbols if EVM units are stand-alone

Photo Courtesy: Twitter/ @naukarshah
Photo Courtesy: Twitter/ @naukarshah

Dr PVS Kumar

The Election Commission of India is going to extraordinary lengths to bolster its claim that Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) are fool proof. The Commission issued full page advertisements in newspapers on Monday to instil confidence in EVMs days after Mamata Banerjee had expressed fear that the EVMs would be rigged. The advertisement blitz closely followed the Prime Minister mocking the West Bengal chief minister for her allegedly unfounded fear about EVMs.

The timing of the advertisement campaign and the decision to issue the advertisement in even those states which are not poll-bound, left observers puzzled. After all the same Election Commission days earlier had made a distinction between poll-bound states and others while issuing orders to gloss over the Prime Minister’s photograph on COVID-19 vaccination certificates in poll-bound states.

What is more, the advertisement does nothing to dispel misgivings about the EVM. By listing political parties and the votes each of them polled in successive elections and the number of seats won, the Election Commission has merely engaged in a juvenile stunt while evading the questions being raised. These figures say nothing about the efficacy or robustness of the machines. In any case what is the ECI trying to prove by listing the number of seats won by different parties? It should actually be of no concern to the Commission, which is expected to play the role of a neutral Referee. The number of football tournaments won by different clubs surely is no indication of the referee’s neutrality?

As IAS officer Kannan Gopinathan, whose resignation from service the Government refuses to accept, has pointed out, Election Commission’s claim that the EVM is a stand-alone machine and is not hackable does not square with the VVPAT unit’s paper trail with name of the candidate and party symbol. How are these names and symbols loaded, he has asked. And if laptops are being used to load and programme these details and link the VVPAT unit with the EVM, how can the EC claim that it is still a stand-alone machine ?

What the advertisements ought to have addressed, if at all the Commission wanted to make a comparison, is how the EVMs were deployed in different elections, how much time they took to declare the results compared to paper ballots, how many glitches were reported and how many election petitions or complaints were generated before EVMs were introduced and after. If paper ballots took two days to count and EVMs take one, the argument that the voting machine expedites announcement of the result would appear dubious. But the advertisement campaign unleashed by the EC has been amateurish and utterly meaningless. It proves nothing. It disproves nothing.

Citizens’ Commission on Elections (CCE) report “Is the Indian EVM and VVPAT System Fit for Democratic Elections?” hold that EVMs fall far short of the ‘democracy principles’ such as absolute transparency in facilitating the voters’ right to choose a candidate of their choice and in ensuring that this is faithfully reflected in the votes stored and counted —without the slightest deviation whatsoever. Democracy principles also mandate that the voting procedure is easily understandable and verifiable by the voter and open to audit without complications even when relevant technology is utilised. There should be absolutely no scope for error or misrepresentation of the elector’s choice.

Key concerns and suggestions from the domain experts of the CCE are:

End-to-end verifiability: Pre-determined and pre-set test patterns are known to be inadequate for verification of the integrity of an EVM. The present EVM system is not verifiable and is therefore unfit for democratic elections. To ensure independence between software and hardware, end-to-end verifiable systems with provable guarantees of correctness must be introduced and the ECI must declare its publicly verifiable guarantees against spurious vote injections.

If the correctness of an EVM cannot be established then it is practically impossible to predict whether an EVM can be hacked or not. In particular, the fact that an EVM has not yet been detected to have been hacked provides no guarantee whatsoever that it cannot be hacked. Thus, elections must be conducted assuming that EVMs may possibly be tampered with.

There must be a post-election audit of the EVM counts against manual counting of the VVPAT slips. In fact, it may be sufficient to tamper only a few EVMs to swing an election if a contest is close. Thus, in practice, it may be necessary to test more EVMs than even what the civil society and political party’s demand (30% and 50% respectively) to ensure verification and reliable ascertainment of results.

There must be a stringent audit of the electronic vote count before the results are declared. The audit should not be based on ad hoc methods but by counting a statistically significant sample of the VVPAT slips according to rigorous and well-established statistical audit techniques. The audit may in some cases -- depending on the margin of victory --require a full manual counting of VVPAT slips.

(The author is a Scientist (Retd) from National Institute of Science Communication and Information)

View expressed are personal

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