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Message from Nagaland

The voter-verified paper audit trail should silence EVM sceptics.

Published: October 9, 2013 12:41:41 am

Rohit Kumar Singh

The voter-verified paper audit trail should silence EVM sceptics.

Amid the clamour of events in the last month,one bit of news seems to have quietly escaped our notice. Yet it could be a landmark for the electoral process in India. On September 4,2013,Nagaland became the first state in India to use the voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) system with electronic voting machines (EVMs) for the by-elections to the Noksen assembly constituency in Tuensang district. For the uninitiated,the VVPAT is a device attached to EVMs which leaves a verifiable paper trail of the votes cast. It permits the voter to check whether his vote has been recorded with the candidate he had wished to vote for.

Sceptics have tried belittling EVMs for quite some time now. As an observer of the Election Commission,I have often seen this issue being hotly debated during field interactions. Voters and political parties are apprehensive,mainly on three counts. First,can the machines be manipulated through a remote control? Second,what if a software module is embedded in the hardware,hidden in sleeper mode and activated to corrupt the machine at a later time? Third,is the vote actually recorded in favour of the candidate for whom it is cast?

All these apprehensions seem reasonable and need to be addressed. The security of EVMs may be compromised either by an outsider attack or manipulation by officials in charge of the process. For an outsider attack,the crucial prerequisite is access. Unlike other computerised voting devices,our EVMs are designed to work as standalone systems. While other such machines use generalised hardware and operating systems stored in flash memories,rendering them susceptible to manipulation,the software in our EVMs is fused permanently into integrated circuits that cannot be retrieved,altered or accessed,even by the manufacturer. During voting and the subsequent counting process,the EVMs are never connected to any network or device.

As for the possibility of manipulation through an insider job,consider the systems and processes prescribed by the EC. When the EVMs are prepared before polling day,candidates are permitted to inspect each machine and witness mock poll demonstrations. Subsequently,these machines are securely stored in rooms that are sealed in the presence of the candidates. Before the actual voting,the polling officers at each booth are required to hold mock polls in the presence of election agents.

If an errant polling official does manage to change the hardware module,causing the machine to malfunction,it is bound to be detected during the mock poll,either at the preparation stage or on polling day. If that happens,the faulty EVM is immediately replaced. Even if a miscreant can somehow access the hardware,and programmes the machine in such a way that it works perfectly during the mock poll but malfunctions during the actual poll,it is next to impossible to ensure that it will specifically favour somebody. The number of mock polls is never certain. Nobody,including the possible “hacker”,knows the exact number of mock-poll iterations. So a hacker can never be sure of success with prewritten malicious firmware. Finally,during the counting of votes,the tabulation of results is done manually,in the presence of counting agents of political parties. In addition,an audit of one-fifth of the machines,selected at random,must be done by the EC observer. The integrity of these processes can hardly be compromised.

As a precaution to mitigate further risk of an insider job,the EC has introduced randomisation at different stages. The EVMs are assigned to various constituencies through software-driven,randomised allocation. Even within a constituency,allocation to a particular polling booth is randomised. Also,the randomisation happens in the presence of the representatives of political parties and contesting candidates. It is supervised by an independent EC observer.

The introduction of the VVPAT could finally silence the sceptics. Voters can directly interpret their vote now. It definitely adds an extra layer of comfort for them. The EC needs to be complimented for the successful trial in Nagaland — 70.3 per cent of the voters exercised their franchise through the VVPAT. There were no problems faced by either the election officials or the voters.

The writer is an IAS officer. Views are personal

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