Why the trust deficit in the EVM

In its present form, the electronic voting system or EVS is manipulable, making a mockery of the claim that our elections are ‘free and fair’

Stonewalling all the evidence that the EVS needs reformatting, the ECI is running an awareness campaign to show all is well
Stonewalling all the evidence that the EVS needs reformatting, the ECI is running an awareness campaign to show all is well

AJ Prabal

Even as several thousand protestors assembled at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on 31 January to demand elections through ballot papers, the Election Commission of India (ECI) amped up its campaign to defend the electronic voting system (EVS).

Four years after questions were raised, the ECI announced on its website that the Control Unit is the ‘master’ and the VVPAT the ‘slave’ in the system. It also sent out an unspecified number of machines to accompany the government’s ‘Viksit Bharat Yatra’ to reassure people that there is nothing wrong with the electronic voting machine (EVM).


The EVM is not a single machine. It is a combination of three machines, namely, the BU (Ballot Unit), the VVPAT (Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail) unit and a CU (Control Unit).

BU is the machine on which voters press the buttons against listed candidates and symbols to register their vote. Since 2019, the EVM has been attached to a VVPAT unit which receives the signal from the BU and prints the symbol voted for. It is visible for seven seconds to enable voters to verify that the intended symbol has been recorded. The signal then travels to the CU, which records the vote for counting.

The ECI’s latest clarification claims that the signal travels from the BU to the CU, which transmits the signal to the VVPAT. Voters, however, have no way of verifying what the CU has recorded. Is it possible for the chip or microprocessor in the CU to transmit one signal to the VVPAT but record a different signal for counting? The voter has no way of knowing.

Can the CU and the VVPAT be programmed in such a way that every third or fifth vote cast is recorded in favour of a particular party? Is it possible to manipulate the CU?

The question of trust

Trust is at the heart of any election. The voter must know their ballot is secret and has been recorded and counted as cast. The voter must also be able to verify on their own, without the help of experts and authorities, the accuracy of the process. Until this last condition is fulfilled, EVMs cannot be used, ruled the German Supreme Court in 2009.

What is more, the voter should be able to cancel their vote ‘without interacting with any authority’ and without any reference to officials in case of doubt.

In India, voters cannot legally complain about VVPATs, electoral rolls etc. If a complaint is lodged, the onus to prove it lies with the voter and a fine of Rs 5,000 is imposed if the charge is unproven. In the absence of any dispute resolution mechanism — a systemic flaw in the Indian system — complaints are almost never made.

“The correct VVPAT protocol would be to allow a voter to approve the VVPAT slip before a vote is finally cast and provide an option to cancel the vote if a discrepancy is noticed. The only way to do so, without trusting machines and buttons, is to allow the voter to obtain the VVPAT slip and cast it in a box herself,” says S. Banerjee, professor of computer science at Ashoka University and a member of the Citizens’ Commission on Elections (CCE) headed by retired Supreme Court justice Madan Lokur.

This system was recommended by the US National Academy of Sciences in 2018, and sought by the INDIA bloc in a memorandum to the ECI last year.

A combination of EVMs and paper ballots are being used in most European countries and the US. While electronic machines verify the identity and eligibility of the voter and eliminate the possibility of duplicate voting, voters collect the ballot papers and check if their vote has been recorded correctly before dropping them in the ballot box. The machines and the ballots are then matched and used in post-poll audits — something that the ECI does not do.

The trust deficit is also due to the government of India’s insistence on knowing the voting pattern at every polling booth, for ‘better administration’. In 2015–16, it rejected a proposal by the ECI to mix votes recorded in 40 or 50 booths before counting.

This, coupled with political party workers telling voters that the ‘gormint’ would come to know who they voted for, adds a fear factor to the equation.

Bharat Electronics Limited

The EVS is assembled by BEL, a public sector company that functions under the ministry of defence, with five full-time directors and two part-time ‘government directors’ nominated by the Union government. Why then does it also have seven additional independent directors nominated by the government, four of whom are associated with the BJP, asked Rajya Sabha MP Digvijaya Singh in Parliament this week.

The BEL website names Shyama Singh, an advocate from Gaya in Bihar, Shiv Nath Yadav, a retired professor of political science from Varanasi; Mansukhbhai Shamjibhai Khachariya, businessman and district BJP president from Rajkot and P.V. Parthasarathi, a dentist from Hyderabad among the ‘independent’ directors.

The disproportionate representation of the ruling party on the BEL board seems suspicious.

Following assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh late last year, a group of lawyers in the national capital launched a campaign against the EVM. They cited figures revealing a mismatch between the ECI’s own figures of votes counted and votes polled in several constituencies. Discrepancies in victory margins led them to allege that EVMs had been manipulated.

A group of Supreme Court lawyers says the 2024 general elections must be held with ballot papers. “That is what the law mandates; the ECI must count ballot papers and match [them] with the EVM count,” said advocates Bhanu Pratap Singh, Narendra Mishra and Mehmood Pracha.

Since the ECI is already printing VVPAT slips, where’s the difficulty in counting them and matching the count with the EVMs? The ECI has opposed this demand in the Supreme Court, pleading time-constraints, arguing that the process could take five to six days. The lawyers are not convinced, since paper ballots were earlier counted in a day-and-a-half.

Election experts warn that manipulating even 10 votes in each polling booth with a thousand voters can lead to a one per cent swing, and that there is a clear and present danger of electoral rolls being manipulated through deletion, addition or coercion.

Lawyers also claim that there are 70 lakh duplicate voters in Uttar Pradesh alone, despite door-to-door revision. With the same voters registered in different constituencies, manipulation of results is eminently possible in a multi-phase election.

Stuffing of votes

One of the reasons for discarding ballot paper was the stuffing of votes in ballot boxes by political party workers or even polling personnel after polling was officially over. Additional reasons for distrust were the sudden surge of votes in the last hour of voting and the ECI revising voting percentage 12 hours or later after voting.

The electronic system is not equipped to prevent stuffing of votes. The only limiting factor embedded in the system is on the number of votes that can be cast per unit of time — 12 seconds for one vote. In other words, only five votes can be cast or stuffed every minute. This is a very weak measure, says Banerjee, because as many as 300 votes can still be stuffed into a single machine in an hour.

“There are several techniques to ensure (and prove) that every vote cast is by an eligible voter who has not already cast her vote, but the ECI is either unaware or disinterested,” he concludes.

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