ECI marks Voters’ Day with EVM demo, but here's another demo you cannot miss

A commemorative stamp, promotional video, logo and new tagline were released by the Election Commission of India, but also watch a video raising questions on the EVM-VVPAT combine

President Droupadi Murmu (centre) releases a commemorative stamp on Voters' Day (photo: @ECISVEEP)/X
President Droupadi Murmu (centre) releases a commemorative stamp on Voters' Day (photo: @ECISVEEP)/X

Shalini Sahay

The 14th National Voters’ Day was observed by the Election Commission of India (ECI) on Thursday with a renewed appeal to every voter, especially first-time voters, to vote in elections. The President of India attended an exhibition on the occasion, and the ECI arranged a demonstration of how elections are conducted using EVMs (electronic voting machines) and VVPATs (voter verifiable paper audit trails).

The highest voting percentage since the first general elections in 1952 has been 67.11 in 2019, when 91 crore voters were eligible to vote. In 2014, the polling percentage was 66.40 per cent, and 55 crore voters cast their vote.

The ECI’s credibility, however, has touched a new low in recent years following its inability to stand up to the government on the issue of electoral bonds, implementation of the model code of conduct (MCC), failure to publish error-free electoral rolls and above all, satisfactorily counter the growing scepticism and doubts around the EVM-VVPAT system. Above all, its stony silence in response to pleas for an audience from Opposition parties for the past six months has baffled people.

The government’s recent move to change the mode of appointment of election commissioners (EC) by empowering the prime minister and a Union minister of his choice, with the leader of the Opposition being the third lame duck member of the collegium, has further dented its credibility.

The ECI’s response to civil society, too, has bordered on rudeness and arrogance. It has been alleged that the commission did not bother to even acknowledge a memorandum submitted by retired IAS and IFS officers seeking clarifications on the electoral process. It has also refused to meet the lawyers who have been active on social media and on the streets of New Delhi, demanding that the 2024 election be held with ballot papers.

The INDIA bloc of 28 political parties has formally requested the ECI to count VVPAT slips at the end of voting to set all doubts at rest. While it may take a few extra hours, the exercise will remove the cloud hovering over electronic voting.

Critics, among them computer scientists and technical experts, have pointed out that while only a few countries in the world besides India —such as Brazil, Venezuela, and Australia — have electronic voting, the commission refuses to reveal the ‘source code’, as is done in Australia. Electronic voting in Belgium, too, allows voters to receive a voting slip and put it in the ballot box to be counted.

The ECI did not even reply to the report and communication submitted by the Citizens’ Commission on Elections, headed by former Supreme Court judge Madan Lokur, calling for greater accountability and transparency in the process. A Chennai-based member of the citizens’ commission, M.G. Devasahayam, has said "elections should not only be fair but also appear to be fair".

Former Madhya Pradesh chief minister and senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh has pointed out that the ECI itself does not have a technical team, and relies on private firms to maintain and repair EVMs and to programme VVPATS with symbols. It is the government in power which decides on these firms, and the software developers and programmers are the ones who determine how the machines and chips will function.

Former IAS officers Afzal Amanullah has said at a time when even the most high-tech programmes such as those regulating bank accounts, mails and smart phones can be hacked, it is not tenable to claim that EVMs and VVPATs cannot.

The ECI's response so far has been to claim that EVMs comply with the legal framework and its website already answers all questions.

The 28-party INDIA bloc submitted a memorandum to the poll panel on 9 August 2023 asking questions about the use of EVMs and VVPATs. The alliance has followed it up with four letters requesting time to meet the EC. It is yet to receive a reply.

On Wednesday, Digvijaya Singh held a press conference in Bhopal to demonstrate how an EVM-VVPAT system can be hacked. With a dummy EVM-VVPAT developed by IIT-Delhi alumnus Rahul Mehta, 10 random people were invited to vote for an apple, banana, or watermelon.

Every time they pressed a button on the EVM, they called out the name of the fruit they had voted for. They also verified that the VVPAT slip recorded their preference. Five votes were cast for the apple, three for the banana and two for the watermelon.

But when the printed slips were brought out, it was seen that the apple had received eight votes instead of five, while the banana had received four votes instead of three and the watermelon just one.

Seeing the symbol for seven seconds on the VVPAT is no guarantee that that is what will finally be printed and recorded in the control unit of the EVM, explained Singh. The present system does not allow voters to know for certain that votes have been recorded correctly.

“What is the demand of civil society? That each voter should be able to verify that her vote is cast as intended, recorded as cast, and counted as recorded. Isn’t it the fundamental right of every Citizen and voter?" Singh wondered aloud.

We wonder who the answers will come from.

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