Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) Controversy

By BYJU'S Exam Prep

Updated on: September 13th, 2023

Context: The allegations of malfunctioning of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) by the oppositions parties in the multiple State Elections as well as the two General Elections of 2014 and 2019 have raised questions over the credibility of the machines. The alleged tampering has the potential to wreak havoc in the democratic setup of the country. However, the Election Commission on multiple occasions has rejected these allegations and reassured the electorate against any such mischief regarding the EVMs.

EVM Technology

  • EVMs are simple and isolated machines which provide the voter with a button of every choice corresponding to the candidate. It is linked by a cable to an electronic ballot box.
  • EVMs are powered by a 6-volt single alkaline battery and thus can be used in remote areas with no electricity as well.
  • EVMs are not connected internally or externally to any internet or any communication device which makes it difficult to hack from remote operations.

EVMs in India

Globally only about 25 countries have tested or are using the EVM technology in their electoral process. The EVMs in countries like the USA are connected to a server and operated using the Internet. This makes it prone to hacking and manipulation (as alleged Russian role in US Presidential Elections). Similarly, in Germany, the EVMs were found with several issues as they were imported from a private company from the Netherlands and held unconstitutional by their courts on various accounts. Brazil and Venezuela have been using their model of EVMs successfully.

India has successfully incorporated the EVMs into its electoral process with the aim to reduce problems associated with ballot paper voting and create a clean voting environment. The Election Commission mooted the idea of EVM in 1977. M B Haneefa invented the first model of the Indian voting machine in 1980 which was used in 1981 by-election in Kerala. In 1989, EVMs were commissioned by Election Commission of India in collaboration with Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL).

Parliament amended the law in 1988 and a new section 61A was added to Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951 which empowered the Commission to use voting machines. The Central Government appointed the Electoral Reforms Committee in January 1990 consisting of a representative of several recognized National and State Parties.

The Electoral Reforms Committee further constituted a technical Expert Committee for the evaluation of the EVMs. The Committee concluded that the EVM is a secure system.  Thus, the expert committee recommended the use of electronic voting machines without further loss of time in April 1990. Since 2000, EVMs have been used in over 100 State Assembly Elections and 4 Lok Sabha elections held in 2004, 2009, 2014 and 2019.

From Ballot to Machine

  • Booth capturing or Ballot Box capturing was rampant in many places where the power politics came into play with the use of local goons.
  • Forcibly casting false votes by party workers.
  • A high proportion of invalid votes such as improper stamping on the ballots.
  • Huge time and operational cost of the paper ballot system.

Studies show that EVMs have considerably reduced electoral fraud and made rigging nearly impossible.

Should India Switch to Paper Ballots Again?

Since their debut, these machines have been targeted by all the political parties especially the losing side. The allegations that EVMs can tamper easily where the vote of one political party or candidate can be transferred to another. Or, that no matter the choice of the voter, the vote will be cast to a particular party or candidate. Technical glitches such as sudden stopping of the machine have been alleged as mischief by some parties.

Transparency, Verifiability and Secrecy of the voting process are the pillars of free and fair elections in a democratic setup. These are ensured by the paper ballots where the voter can confirm her casted vote and that too in secrecy. These very pillars are said to be shaken by the malfunctioning EVMs.

The doubt over the transparency and integrity of EVMs have been raised in technologically advanced countries as well. These include Germany, USA and Italy among many others and some have even held the use of EVMs as unconstitutional and therefore banned them in their countries.

Election Commission of India, however, swear by the un-hackability of the EVMs and had even thrown an open challenge to all political parties and other professionals to tamper the machine.

The EVM Test

  • EVMs are carefully selected and secured by the Election Commission to ensure that the machines record the actual vote. The testing of the EVMs is done in the presence of all political party representatives. Faulty machines are removed. The EVMs are then sent to different constituencies randomly such as to foil any rigging possibility.
  • As a dry run, the EVMs are then retested in the presence of party representatives after which they sign a certificate of satisfaction. Before being finally delivered to polling booths, EVMs have sealed with a unique security number again in the presence of all the party representatives.
  • After the elections, the EVMs are immediately despatched to the custody of the Returning Officer which may be SDM or DC (or any other who has been accorded magistracy powers).
  • Now, the Election Commission has assured that in future VVPAT would be provided with the EVMs so the voter can see the vote she casts.

Is EVM Tampering Possible?

  • The EVMs are electronically designed in such a way as to prevent any manipulation. The software in the machines is burnt into a One Time Programmable (OTP) chip so that it cannot tamper.
  • This software is developed indigenously by BEL and ECIL engineers independently. No private contracts are given to design the software.
  • The testing and evaluation of the software are done by independent testing groups only.
  • The code is burnt into the microcontrollers. The code is kept secret and not given to anyone outside the designer engineers group in the PSU.
  • The software code is designed as per the requirements of the voting process. The software allows a voter to cast the vote only once. The vote can be recorded by an elector from the ballot unit only after the Presiding Officer enables the ballot on the Control Unit. The machine does not receive any signal from outside at any time. 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 the Control Unit.)
  • The EVM samples are regularly checked by the Quality Assurance Group within the PSUs.
  • In 2006, The Technical Evaluation Committee had concluded that any tampering of Control Unit by coded signals by wireless or Bluetooth/WiFi or any remote location is not possible as the Control Unit does not have a high-frequency receiver and data decoder. The Control Unit accepts an only special encrypted date from Ballot Unit.
  • Data from any outside source is not accepted by the Control Unit.

This system makes the EVM effectively hack-proof. However, the allegations and claims continue. Therefore, the Election Commission of India has proposed the use of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) with the EVMs.

How will VVPAT help?

It is claimed that the EVMs are neither transparent and nor verifiable. That is, once the vote had been cast, the voter cannot see her vote being recorded and cannot verify that the vote had been recorded correctly. The EVM record only the total number of votes. It is alleged that by tampering the machines, it is possible to game the system where the vote cast would be different than the vote recorded.

In its response, the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) was introduced by the Election Commission of India. It is an attached printer with the EVM that provides a paper trail for voters which she has 7 seconds to see. The paper with the poll symbol and name of candidate then drops into the box. This helps in verification of the vote cast.

VVPAT machines can be accessed only by polling officers.

However, VVPAT resolves only the verification part of the voting. The counting part of the votes is still opaque. The counting and verification of all the VVPAT will be a logistical challenge as well.

The secrecy of the voting process might also be compromised. With VVPAT papers, there is a risk of capturing voting patterns in a particular constituency. It would render the marginalised communities vulnerable.  A totaliser machine was proposed to address this issue. The totaliser machine mixes the votes from 14 booths ad counts them together to protect the voters by maintaining their secrecy.

Malfunctioning VVPATs

The VVPATs have reportedly malfunctioned in several Lok Sabha and State Assembly constituencies. The malfunction was blamed on excessive hot weather and exposure to light which damaged the sensors of the machine. The excuse of the inexperience of the staff with the VVPAT machines is also provided.

VVPAT machines are still not ubiquitous and their procurement has been delayed due to delay in sanctioning of funds from the Union Government.

Way Forward.

EVMs are the key to elections in India. Free and fair elections are Sine qua non for a functional democracy. Any aspersions cast on the election process must be immediately quelled to maintain the confidence of the citizens upon the system of the state. In this regard, the best manner of the voting process is to be decided upon by all the stakeholders which include all political parties, Election Commission, and the people.

Some measures concerning the EVMs which will strengthen their use in elections in India and create a malign free election environment are:

  • Frequent public hackathons of the EVM machines to build people’s faith in the machines.
  • Immediate correction of any malfunctioning when found.
  • VVPAT to be attached with every EVM in the polling booth as soon as possible.
  • Improve the EVM and VVPAT technology to work in extreme temperatures to prevent any misbehaving.

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