INDIA’S EVM: SAFE AND TAMPERPROOF

There is a sudden flare up in the media about the use of EVMs in the forthcoming general elections of 2019. Late Tamil writer, Sujatha (Rangarajan), who was the brain behind EVMs in our country, all through his life was defending the EVM. This article is gleaned from public press reports, to inform the public of the subject.

As an engineer, Mr. Rangarajan (aka) Writer Sujatha Rangarajan supervised the design and production of the electronic voting machine (EVM) during his tenure at Bharat Electronics Limited, a machine which is currently used in elections throughout India, gazetted “Electronically operated vote counting machine”. His original design was exhibited to the public in Government Exhibitions held in six cities. The EVMs were commissioned in 1989 by Election Commission of India in collaboration with Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL). The Industrial designers of the EVMs were faculty members at the Industrial Design Centre, IIT Bombay. The EVMs were first used in 1982 in the by-election to North Paravur Assembly Constituency in Kerala for a limited number of polling stations.The EVMs were first time used on an experimental basis in selected constituencies of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. The EVMs were used first time in the general election (entire state) to the assembly of Goa in 1999. In 2003, all by-elections and state elections were held using EVMs, encouraged by this election commission decided to use only EVMs for Lok Sabha elections in 2004.

Design and Technology

An EVM consists of two units, a control unit, and the balloting unit. The two units are joined by a five-meter cable. Balloting unit facilitates voting by a voter via labeled buttons while the control unit controls the ballot units, stores voting counts and displays the results on 7 segment LED displays. The controller used in EVMs has its operating program etched permanently in silicon at the time of manufacturing by the manufacturer. No one (including the manufacturer) can change the program once the controller is manufactured.

EVMs are powered by an ordinary 6 volt alkaline battery manufactured by BEL, Bangalore and ECIL, Hyderabad. This design enables the use of EVMs throughout the country without interruptions because several parts of India do not have the power supply and/or erratic power supply.

An EVM can record a maximum of 3840 votes and can cater to a maximum of 64 candidates. There is provision for 16 candidates in a single balloting unit and up to a maximum of 4 units can be connected in parallel. The conventional ballot paper/box method of polling is used if the number of candidates exceeds 64. It is not possible to vote more than once by pressing the button again and again. As soon as a particular button on the balloting unit is pressed, the vote is recorded for that particular candidate and the machine gets locked. Even if one presses that button further or any other button, no further vote will be recorded. This way, the EVMs ensure the principle of “one person, one vote”.

Procedure to use

The control unit is with the presiding officer or a polling officer and the balloting Unit is placed inside the voting compartment. The balloting unit presents the voter with blue buttons (momentary switch) horizontally labeled with corresponding party symbol and candidate names. The Control Unit, on the other hand, provides the officer-in-charge with a “Ballot” marked button to proceed to the next voter, instead of issuing a ballot paper to them. This activates the ballot unit for a single vote from the next voter in the queue. The voter has to cast his vote by once pressing the blue button on the balloting unit against the candidate and symbol of his choice.

As soon as the last voter has voted, the Polling Officer-in-charge of the Control Unit will press the ‘Close’ Button. Thereafter, the EVM will not accept any votes. Further, after the close of the poll, the Balloting Unit is disconnected from the Control Unit and kept separately. Votes can be recorded only through the Balloting Unit. Again the Presiding officer, at the close of the poll, will hand over to each polling agent present an account of votes recorded. At the time of counting of votes, the total will be tallied with this account and if there is any discrepancy, this will be pointed out by the Counting Agents. During the counting of votes, the results are displayed by pressing the ‘Result’ button. There are two safeguards to prevent the ‘Result’ button from being pressed before the counting of votes officially begins.

•This button cannot be pressed till the ‘Close’ button is pressed by the Polling Officer-in-charge at the end of the voting process in the polling booth.

•This button is hidden and sealed; this can be broken only at the counting centre in the presence of a designated officer.

Benefits

The cost per EVM was ₹5,500 (equivalent to ₹42,000 or USD 580 in 2017) at the time the machines were purchased in 1989–90. The cost was estimated to be ₹10,500 (equivalent to ₹12,000 or USD 170 in 2017) per unit as per an additional order issued in 2014. Even though the initial investment was heavy, it has since been assessed to have saved costs of production and printing of crores of ballot papers, their transportation and storage, substantial reduction in the counting staff and the remuneration paid to them. For each national election, it is estimated that about 10,000 tonnes of the ballot paper are saved. EVMs are easier to transport compared to ballot boxes as they are lighter, more portable, and come with polypropylene carrying cases. Vote counting is also faster. In places where illiteracy is a factor, illiterate people find EVMs easier than ballot paper system. Bogus voting is greatly reduced as the vote is recorded only once. The unit can store the result in its memory before it is erased manually. The battery is required only to activate the EVMs at the time of polling and counting and as soon as the polling is over, the battery can be switched off. The shelf life of Indian EVMs is estimated at 15 years.

Limitations: Totaliser

A candidate can know how many people from a polling station voted for him. This is a significant issue particularly if lop-sided votes for/against a candidate are cast in individual polling stations and the winning candidate might show favouritism or hold a grudge on specific areas. The Election Commission of India has stated that the manufacturers of the EVMs have developed a Totaliser unit which can connect several balloting units and would display only the overall results from an Assembly or a Lok Sabha constituency instead of votes from individual polling stations.

The control units do not electronically transmit their results back to the Election Commission, even though a simple and unconditionally secure protocol for doing this exists. The Indian EVMs are purposely designed as stand-alone units to prevent any intrusion during electronic transmission of results. Instead, the EVMs are collected in counting booths and tallied on the assigned counting day(s) in the presence of polling agents of the candidates.

Security issues

An international conference on the Indian EVMs and its tamper-ability of the said machines was held under the chairmanship of Subramanian Swamy, President of the Janata Party and former Union Cabinet Minister for Law, Commerce and Justice at Chennai on 13 February 2010. The conclusion was that the Election Commission of India was shirking its responsibility on the transparency in the working of the EVMs. In April 2010, an independent security analysis was released by a research team led by Hari K. Prasad, Rop Gonggrijp, and Alex Halderman.

The study included video demonstrations of two attacks that the researchers carried out on a real EVM, as well as descriptions of several other potential vulnerabilities.

In order to mitigate these threats, the researchers suggested moving to a voting system that provides greater transparency, such as paper ballots, precinct count optical scan, or a voter verified paper audit trail, since, in any of these systems, skeptical voters could, in principle, observe the physical counting process to gain confidence that the outcome is fair. But Election Commission of India pointed out that for such tampering of the EVMs, one needs physical access to EVMs, and pretty high tech skills are required. Given that EVMs are stored under strict security which can be monitored by candidates or their agents all the time, its impossible to gain physical access to the machines. Plus, to impact the results of an election, hundreds to thousands of machines will be needed to tamper with, which is almost impossible given the hi-tech and time-consuming nature of the tampering process.

On 25 July 2011, responding to a PIL (Writ Petition (Civil) No. 312 of 2011), Supreme Court of India asked EC to consider request to modify EVMs and respond within three months. The petitioner, Rajendra Satyanarayan Gilda had alleged that EC has failed to take any decision despite his repeated representation. The petitioner suggested that the EVMs should be modified to give a slip printed with the symbol of the party in whose favour the voter cast his ballot.

On 17 January 2012, Delhi High Court in its ruling on Dr. Subramanian Swamy’s Writ Petition (Writ Petition (Civil) No. 11879 of 2009) challenging the use of EVMs in the present form said that EVMs are not “tamper-proof”. Further, it said that it is “difficult” to issue any directions to the EC in this regard. However, the court added that the EC should itself hold wider consultations with the executive, political parties and other stake holders on the matter.

Swamy appealed against Delhi High Court’s refusal to order a VVPAT system in Supreme Court. On 27 September 2012, Election Commission’s advocate Ashok Desai submitted to a Supreme Court bench of Justice P. Sathasivam and Justice Ranjan Gogoi that field trial for VVPAT system is in progress and that a status report will be submitted by early January 2013. Desai said that on pressing of each vote, a paper receipt will be printed, which will be visible to the voters inside a glass but cannot be taken out of the machine. Dr. Swamy said that the new system was acceptable to him.The Supreme Court posted the matter for further hearing to 22 January and on 8 October 2013, it delivered a verdict, that the Election Commission of India will use VVPAT.Another similar writ petition filed by the Asom Gana Parishad is still pending before the Gauhati High Court.

An US-based Indian hacker named Syed Shuja, who is currently seeking political asylum in the US, claimed in a London press conference via Skype that the electronic voting machines (EVMs) are being compromised and that those used in the 2014 general elections were rigged. Shuja claims that he worked with the Electronic Corporation of India and was part of the team which designed EVMs being used by the Election Commission. Shuja also claimed that late minister Gopinath Munde, who died in June 2014, was allegedly murdered because he was about to expose his own government over the hacking.

This claim has been rejected by the Election Commission of India, describing the allegation as a ‘motivated slug-fest,’ reiterating that these EVMs are manufactured in India under very strict supervisory and security conditions and there are “rigorous Standard Operating Procedures meticulously observed at all stages under the supervision of a committee of eminent technical experts constituted way back in 2010”. The commission has also threatened to charge Shuja under Section 505(1)(b) of the Indian Penal Code (titled “Punishment for Statements Conducing to Public Mischief”) and has lodged a First Information Report against him with the Delhi Police. The Bharatiya Janata Party attributed this claim to the opposing Indian National Congress as an attempt by them to manipulate the electorate with fake news before forthcoming elections.

Further information: Voter-verified paper audit trail

On 8 October 2010, Election Commission appointed an expert technical committee headed by Prof. P. V. Indiresan (former Director of IIT-M) when at an all-party meeting majority of political parties backed the proposal to have a VVPAT in EVMs to counter the charges of tampering. The committee was tasked to examine the possibility of introduction of a paper trail so that voters can get a printout that will show symbol of the party to which the vote was cast. After studying the issue, the committee recommended introduction of VVPAT system.

On 21 June 2011, Election Commission accepted Indiresan Committee’s recommendations and decided to conduct field trials of the system. On 26 July 2011, field trials of the VVPAT system were conducted at Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir, Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, Cherrapunjee in Meghalaya, East Delhi in Delhi and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. Just two days after Delhi High Court judgement saying EVMs are not “tamper-proof,” Election Commission on 19 January 2012 ordered ECIL and BEL to make EVMs that will generate a “paper trail” of the vote cast. BEL CMD Anil Kumar said: “The new EVMs’ paper trail should make the poll process safer and tamper-proof. EC has given us its requirement for EVMs and work is on to incorporate new features. The EVM software will be modified and a printer attached to it. When you cast a vote, the serial number and some data will be generated as a printout. It is to ensure that there is no malpractice in the voting system.” It appears that, when the voter presses the button for the candidate of his choice in the EVM, a paper ballot with the serial number, name, and symbol of the candidate will be printed. The printouts will be used later to cross-check the voting data stored in the EVMs. Talking about other features in new EVMs, he said the machines will be more rugged and smaller in size but with more computing power.

The voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) system, which enables EVM to record each vote cast by generating the EVM slip, was introduced in 8 of 543 parliamentary constituencies as a pilot project (Lucknow, Gandhinagar, Bangalore South, Chennai Central, Jadavpur, Raipur, Patna Sahib and Mizoram constituencies). Voter-verified paper audit trail was first used in an election in India in September 2013 in Noksen (Assembly Constituency) in Nagaland.

On 8 October 2013, Supreme Court of India delivered its verdict on Subramanian Swamy’s PIL, that Election Commission of India will use VVPAT along with EVMs in a phased manner and the full completion should be achieved by 2019. Waman Meshram president of BAMCEF filed PIL in Supreme Court against Election Commission accusing it of contempt of court by not following Supreme Court’s verdict of compulsory use of VVPAT. In June 2018, Election Commission of India decided that all VVPATs will have a built-in-hood to prevent it from excess light and heat.

Nepal, Bhutan, Namibia and Kenya have purchased India-manufactured EVMs. In 2013, the Election Commission of Namibia acquired 1700 control units and 3500 ballot units from India’s BEL for use in the regional and presidential elections of 2014. Several other Asian and African countries are reportedly interested in using them as well.

In one of my rare meetings with Sujatha,in 2010, he said, in his own humorous way;“In our country, wise people will always say that they will consult the astrologer and match the horoscopes, before finalising any matrimonial alliance. If the alliance is considered not suitable due to any other reason, mainly the dowry part of it, they will cleverly put the blame on horoscopes not matching. Similarly, when a political party loses the election, it will put the blame on EVM. Many others who contest the elections, make some negative comments about EVM, just to make sure of some reason which can be attributed in case of their electoral defeat. A ready made justification for their loss to act as a face saving device”.

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