The electronic voting machine (EVM) controversy has raised its head again. Ever since EVMs were introduced in 1982, they have been surrounded by challenges. The Election Commission of India has demonstrated time and again how the system is safe and fool-proof.
A combination of safeguards ensures that these machines are fully tamper-proof. Broadly, these can be summed up in four categories: Software and technical, administrative, independent technical watchdog oversight, and judicial scrutiny.
The inventory of technical safeguards is long. The task of making the machines has been given exclusively to two central public sector undertakings, BEL and ECIL, which are entrusted with developing high security defence equipment. The software used is burnt into a one-time programmable/masked chip, so that it cannot be altered or tampered with. The machines are not networked either by wire or by wireless with any other machine or system. Therefore, there is no possibility of data corruption by hacking. The software for this chip is developed in-house by BEL and ECIL independently. The software development team is separate from the production team and reports directly to the CMD. Samples of EVMs from production batches are regularly checked by the quality assurance group which is an independent group within BEL and ECIL.
Administrative security measures include fool-proof protective custody at all stages — from storing the machines in the strong room (the warehouse) to moving them to the polling stations, through three levels of checks and three mock polls. Political party representatives are always present to witness and certify the entire process. Additionally, this is videographed.
The last-minute check is a mock poll (the third in a series) on the polling day before the actual poll of at least 100 votes in the presence of candidates or their authorised agents to demonstrate that the EVM is working properly. Any defective machine is immediately replaced. Then the poll begins.
After the polls, sealed EVMs are taken under heavy armed escort to the strong room where these are stored till counting. Party agents are encouraged to follow the movement and put their seals on the locks of the strong room and keep 24×7 vigil. They actually sleep there! CCTV supplements the three-tier armed security.
A very important safeguard is an independent Technical Advisory Committee of five professors of top IITs. The EC does not take a single technology decision without their scrutiny and approval. I have personally seen how rigorous their scrutiny is. The functioning of the ECI-EVMs has been challenged before several high courts. The courts examined technicians and computer experts who were either produced by the parties or summoned by the court itself. All the courts were satisfied about the non-tamperability of the ECI-EVMs. The Karnataka High Court went to the extent of commenting that “this (ECI-EVM) invention is undoubtedly a great achievement in the electronic and computer technology and a national pride”. The Kerala High Court also recorded its appreciation of the efficiency of the mechanism of the ECI-EVMs.
The highest judicial examination was by the apex court (SC 2013, Subramanian Swamy vs ECI). It was contended that to make EVMs completely tamper-proof and transparent, a voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) is essential. The EC informed the Supreme Court that it was already working on the concept and its Technical Advisory Committee had already approved the design on May 26, 2011, and got a field test in five climatic zones (Leh, Thiruvananthapuram, Sohra in Meghalaya, Jaisalmer and Delhi). The field test showed many bugs which were corrected and certified by the second field test at the same locations.
The court appreciated the “pragmatism and reasonable approach” of the EC and commented, “we appreciate the efforts and good gesture made by ECI in introducing the system.” Coming to the conclusion that the paper trail is an “indispensable requirement of free and fair elections”, the court “directed” the government of India to provide the requisite funds for the procurement of VVPAT machines, for which the EC gave an estimate of Rs 1,690 crore for 1.3 million machines. The court allowed the EC to introduce the machines in phases, which it has been doing.
Controversies about EVMs have been raised time and again. Every political party has questioned the EVMs at one point or another. When they win with the same machines, they just keep quiet instead of publicly apologising and eating their words.
What is the course open to stakeholders in the current controversy? Since many parties have gone to court, the court can order the sealing of all the machines about which suspicions were raised. These EVMs can be checked in the presence of the political parties. That will clinch the argument once and for all. Where the VVPAT was used, the cross-checking with vote slips will suffice.
Secondly, just as EVMs were used in every state election after 1998 till the 2004 general election, the EC must start using VVPATs in the entire elections to the state assemblies. The pilot phase is over. The EC should also counter the propaganda, which seems to be spreading like wildfire, more aggressively and proactively. Although it did deny the allegation, the media did not give it as much coverage as it is giving to the rumours.
Public faith and trust in the electoral system is of paramount importance. It must not be allowed to be shaken. The people and political parties have a right to question and the EC a duty to give convincing answers. It must become more vocal.
The EC’s biggest challenge is to conduct the 2019 general election with VVPAT. It must speed up the production of the requisite number of machines. Funds must not be a constraint. Remember, it’s the “direction” of the Supreme Court.
The writer is former chief election commisssioner of India and author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder — The Making of the Great Indian Election’