The Election Commission (EC) wound up its ‘EVM challenge’ on Saturday with neither of the two participants, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), coming forward to ‘tamper’ the voting machines.
“With the conclusion of today’s challenge and EC’s assurance to cover all voting machines with paper audit trail in future, the issue of EVM tampering stands closed. We are open to receiving suggestions to improve the machines,” Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Nasim Zaidi told reporters after the four-hour exercise wrapped up at 2 pm.
The poll panel chief, however, refrained from calling this a victory. “We won’t term the outcome of today’s EVM challenge as ‘success’ or ‘failure’. It’s an ongoing exercise in improving the conduct of polls,” he said, adding that representatives of the NCP and CPM did not wish to participate in the challenge.
The CEC said members of the CPM delegation only wanted to interact with the Commission’s Technical Expert Committee, following which they “expressed complete satisfaction and suggested that to allay any such doubts, the Commission should hold such demonstrations and awareness sessions with the technical community proactively”.
As for the NCP, the CEC said, “NCP mentioned that the source of their doubts was alleged problems with EVMs during municipal elections in Maharashtra.
The Commission clarified that EVMs used by the state election commission for urban local body elections do not belong to the Election Commission of India (ECI). The NCP team expressed its willingness to opt out, requesting the ECI to evolve a system which clearly distinguishes ECI EVMs from State EC EVMs.”
Responding to queries by reporters that NCP representatives claimed the exercise was an “eye-wash” and they were not allowed to hack the machines, Zaidi said that they had ample opportunity to take on the challenge and they still have an option to come back and attempt the challenge again.
For Saturday’s challenge, the Commission arranged 14 machines that were recently used in the Assembly elections held in Punjab, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. The NCP and CPI(M) were the only two parties that registered for the challenge, with both parties nominating three persons each for the challenge. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which blamed its recent electoral losses on “rigged EVMs”, had opted out of Saturday’s challenge.
As per the framework for the challenge announced by the EC on May 20, to prove allegations of tampering or hacking, challengers had to demonstrate that poll results can be doctored by either pressing a combination of keys on the Control Unit or Ballot Unit of the EVM or both, or by communicating with the EVM through an external wireless device or bluetooth or mobile phone, over four hours. Neither the NCP team nor the CPM delegation attempted to do so.
The CPI had approached EC for permission to observe Saturday’s exercise, but it was turned down. Questioning the EC’s “motive”, the CPI on Saturday said the Commission’s approach was “against the spirit” of its invitation letter seeking cooperation from political parties. Zaidi, however, justified the decision on the ground that the challenge framework did not provide for observation.
The EVM challenge was held to allay apprehensions regarding the machines, which have been in use since 2000. Over the last 17 years, EVMs have been deployed for conducting 107 Assembly elections and three Lok Sabha polls.
The machines were also at the centre of a controversy in 2004, after the BJP was shocked by the Congress in that year’s general elections. The controversy has been revived by Opposition parties that were routed in the recent Assembly elections in five states. The BSP was the first to complain, with Mayawati alleging that largescale EVM tampering was behind the BJP sweep in UP. Later, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal challenged the EC to make EVMs available to the party for 72 hours and claimed that “we will read the code and rewrite it too”.
AAP had opted out of Saturday’s challenge after the EC did not accept the party’s request to change the motherboard of the machines to demonstrate hacking. “Allowing any change of the motherboard or any internal circuit of the EVM is like saying that anyone should be permitted to manufacture a new machine and introduce newly made EVMs in the EC system, which is implausible and irrational,” the EC had said while turning down AAP’s request.
AAP held a press conference on Saturday to announce its own hackathon, which will be held this month. Zaidi, however, refused to comment on the announcement.