How EVMs work, why many parties have suspected they can be rigged

Mayawati and Harish Rawat have alleged voting machines were tampered with. Ritika Chopra recaps a seemingly endless controversy.

Written by Ritika Chopra | Updated: March 15, 2017 1:30 pm
EVM, EVM tampering, assembly election results, mayawati, harish rawat, uttar pradesh election results, uttar pradesh evm tampering, indian express, india news The EVMs have a balloting unit and a control unit (below). Archive

Leaders who lost the recent elections — Mayawati and Harish Rawat among them — have alleged voting machines were tampered with. Ritika Chopra recaps a seemingly endless controversy.

How does an Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) work?
An EVM consists of a ‘control unit’ and a ‘balloting unit’, connected by a 5-metre cable. The control unit is with the Election Commission-appointed polling officer; the balloting unit is in the voting compartment into which the voter enters to cast her vote in secret by pressing the button against the name and symbol of the candidate of her choice. The control unit is the EVM’s ‘brain’ — the balloting unit is turned on only after the polling officer presses the ‘Ballot’ button on it. The EVM runs on a 6 volt single alkaline battery fitted in the control unit, and can even be used in areas that have no electricity.

Watch | Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal Alleges EVM Foul Play, Says Need To Relook Use In Polls

When did the EC decide to switch to EVMs? Why were they deemed superior to traditional paper ballots?
Paper ballots have inherent problems — their printing, storage and transportation involve huge expenditure; lakhs of ballot boxes are needed for each election, and there are logistics issues with their safe storage between elections. There were instances when the number of invalid votes (marked incorrectly by illiterate voters) exceeded the winning margin. Also, the counting of ballot papers could take a full day or more.

To overcome these problems, the EC approached the Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL) in 1977 to develop the prototype of an EVM. On August 6, 1980, the EC demonstrated the ECIL prototype to representatives of political parties to a generally positive reaction. The EC subsequently also drafted Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) to manufacture EVMs.

When were EVMs first used in elections?
The EC decided on a trial run at a few polling stations during the 1982 Kerala Assembly elections. Since the Representation of the People (RP) Act, 1951, only allowed ballot papers and ballot boxes, it urged the government to amend the law. It did not, however, wait for the amendment, and invoked its emergency powers under Article 324 to use voting machines in 50 out of the 84 polling stations of Paravur constituency, where Congress candidate A C Jose was pitted against the CPI’s Sivan Pillai.

Also Watch |Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal Writes To EC Saying EVMs Should Not Be Used in MCD Polls

And when and from whom did they face their first challenge?
CPI’s Pillai filed a writ petition in Kerala High Court days before polling, questioning the use and functioning of EVMs. After the EC demonstrated the machines to the HC, the court refused to interfere. But after Pillai won by a margin of just 123 votes, the Congress’s Jose went to the HC saying the RP Act, 1951, and Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, did not allow use of EVMs. The HC again ruled in the EC’s favour, but the Supreme Court reversed the verdict and ordered a repoll at all 50 polling stations using conventional ballots. This time, Jose won.

The EC then suspended the use of EVMs until Parliament, in 1988, inserted Section 61A in the RP Act and Rules, legitimising them. In November 1998, they were used on an experimental basis in 16 Assembly seats — 5 each in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and 6 in Delhi. In the Lok Sabha elections of 2004, the entire country voted using EVMs.

Broadly, what position have the courts taken on the alleged tamperability of EVMs?
The 1984 SC verdict striking down the pilot run of EVMs in Kerala had little to do with the machines’ efficiency. It was passed on the ground that there was no provision for them in the existing law. But political parties and experts have repeatedly questioned the functioning of EVMs in court. In 2004, advocate Pran Nath Lekhi sought to establish before the Delhi High Court that EVMs had been doctored to favour the UPA in the Lok Sabha elections. Lekhi pleaded that the result of the election was the opposite of the projections (of an NDA win) made by opinion and exit polls. The HC found no merit in the petition, and Lekhi was forced to withdraw.

In 2005, the Karnataka High Court upheld the use of EVMs, and described them as a “great achievement” and a source of “national pride”. The HC order was passed on an election petition filed in 1999 by an unsuccessful candidate who challenged the integrity of EVMs used in the Yelahanka parliamentary constituency. The court examined BEL scientists and studied the safety features of the machines before ruling that the EVMs were tamper-proof, and an attempt to doctor them could not be kept hidden.

How has the EC responded to criticisms of EVMs?
From August 3 to 8, 2009, the Commission undertook the extraordinary step of inviting sceptics to demonstrate the alleged fallibility of EVMs, using 100 randomly sourced machines from 10 states. “The outcome of this exercise is that none of the persons, who were given the opportunity, could actually demonstrate any tamperability of the ECI-EVM, in any of the 100 machines put on display. They either failed or chose not to demonstrate,” the EC said in a press note on August 8. The machines, the EC said, could neither be reprogrammed nor controlled by an external device. “The source code (for the EVM) is so designed that it allows a voter to cast the vote only once. The next vote can be recorded only after the Presiding Officer enables the ballot on the Control Unit. In between the machine becomes dead to any signal from outside (except from the Control Unit),” the 2009 statement said.

The Commission has said that comparisons between EVMs in India and abroad, where they have failed, “are both misplaced and misguided”. This is because “most of the systems used in other countries are PC based and running on operating systems. Hence, these could be vulnerable to hacking.

“The EVM in India on the other hand is a fully standalone machine without being part of any network and with no provision for any input… The software in the EVM chip is one time programmable and is burnt into the chip at the time of manufacture. Nothing can be written on the chip after manufacture. Thus the ECI-EVMs are fundamentally different… (and) any surmise based on foreign studies or operating system based EVMs… would be completely erroneous.”

Which are the countries that have junked EVMs?
Germany and the Netherlands banned EVMs for lack of transparency. Italy felt e-voting results could be fudged. Ireland junked EVMs after spending 51 million pounds researching them for 3 years. In the US, California and many other states have banned EVMs without a paper trail. However, the size of the electorate at all these places is a fraction of the size in India — and the time, energy and expenses of going the same way here are not comparable.

If the EC is so confident of the integrity of EVMs, why has it agreed to Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT)?
With parties, activists and candidates constantly alleging rigging of EVMs despite repeated assurances, the EC called a meeting of all state and national political parties on October 4, 2010 to discuss the issue. At this meeting, some parties suggested that in order to increase transparency, the EC should explore the possibility of introducing VVPAT, in which a voter immediately gets a printout of her vote, which is then deposited in the ballot box. So, every voter can see whether her vote has been registered correctly.

Around the same time, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, who was then the president of the Janata Party, filed a writ petition in Delhi High Court alleging that EVMs were vulnerable to rigging, and demanding a paper back-up of the EVM vote. The EC informed the court that it was already exploring the idea of VVPAT. In 2012, the HC observed that EVMs in their present form were not “tamper-proof”, and the VVPAT system may be developed early in consultation with political parties. Subsequently, the Supreme Court ordered the EC to use VVPATs across all seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

What was the EVM hacking controversy of 2010?
In probably the biggest controversy around EVMs, in 2010, three scientists claimed they had developed a way to hack into the machines. A video posted on the Internet by the researchers purportedly showed them connecting a home-made electronic device to an actual ECI-EVM. Professor J Alex Halderman from the University of Michigan, who led the project, said the device allowed them to change the results on the machine by sending it messages from a mobile phone. The EC once again denied the allegations, and nothing much came of the video except that the Indian scientist out of the three, Hari Prasad, was arrested for allegedly stealing an EVM from the Collector’s office in Mumbai.

Where is this controversy now headed?
All political parties have criticised EVMs only when they have lost elections. Five days ahead of the Delhi Assembly election results in February 2015, Arvind Kejriwal had tweeted about possible tampering of EVMs. He did not pursue his allegation after the same EVMs registered a record mandate for his party, which won 67 out of 70 seats. Similarly, while the BJP seems happy with EVMs today, before the 2014 general election, it had alleged tampering on many occasions — in fact, BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao had even written a book titled Democracy At Risk! Can We Trust Our Electronic Voting Machines?, with a foreword by L K Advani. Mayawati is only the latest politician to attack EVMs; before her the RJD, TDP, SP, JD(U) and Left have all targeted the machines.

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