EVM Controversy: The Vote Has to Be Protected for Democracy to Survive
NEW DELHI: During the first general elections, Jawaharlal Nehru visited his constituency. An old woman said, ‘azadi ke baad bhi kuchh nahin badla, hamari halat to waisi hi hai’, Nehru replied ‘amma aap yeh baat wazire azam se kah sakti hain ke us ne kuchh nahin kiya, aur use badalne ke liye vote daal sakti hain, yeh kya kam bada badlau hai’ (the old women said ‘Nothing has changed after independence, our miserable life has remained the same’. Nehru replied ‘you can say this to the Prime Minister of the country that he has not worked and cast your vote to remove him, is it not a big change?’.)
The Constitution, after independence, ensured that at least on the day of polling every citizen of the country is equal. A Dalit is as rich as the First Citizen, the Prime Minister, Ambanis or Adanis, all of us have one vote each. Probably, one can argue that, in India, trust in the ‘vote’ is directly proportional to the poverty level.
In a recent all India study on demonetisation when respondents were asked ‘Do you agree with the statement that the public is resilient enough and will teach a lesson (or take requite)’ more than 72 percent agreed, only 19 percent disagreed. This was an expression of the trust people have in elections, the democratic system and in their voting right.
India is a highly divided society, yet often people have risen above castes, regionalism, linguistic chauvinism and religious divide to express their dissatisfaction and have voted en mass on issues of national importance. The results of such episodes have reinforced trust in elections.
However, our elections have been far from perfect. Political parties and interested groups, in their zeal to win elections, have used money power, religious divide, regionalism and casteism. It surely amounts to sabotaging democracy, but using muscle power, state machinery or capturing booth to tilt the results in their favour renders the freedom to ‘vote fearlessly’, worthless. Despite these aberrations people have not lost trust in the election process. Barring a miniscule section, for a majority of citizens elections are still a festival of democracy.
This trust and festivity needs to be guarded. Once the trust is lost people will find other ways to assert their aspirations. We have witnessed it happening in Kashmir, North East, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, etc., on a large scale and in many other parts on a small scale. The mistrust in the democratic process has played havoc in Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. India is surrounded by unstable democracies. There is no natural reason for India to remain stable. ‘We the people’ especially, the common citizens who have robust trust in electoral process have made the Indian democracy stable.
Widespread feelings of mistrust can paralyse democratic processes for a short duration. But if a feeling is based on hard evidence and experience then it transforms into belief and can cause permanent damage, unless addressed in time.
The recent, loud and clear accusations, by political parties and individuals about the misuse of EVMs cannot merely be categorised as a feeling. Experience of malfunctioning and accusations of tampering are reportedly based on evidence, that is, the end result.
How can an EVM show ‘0’ vote against a candidate’s score when he and his family members voted in his favour? Reportedly, cutting across party barriers political leaders of Shiv Sena, NCP, Congress, AAP, SP, BSP, etc., ‘have lodged complaints about alleged fraud within the EVMs’.
A report claims that the ‘fraud has gone to inexcusable levels: in many places, a large difference has been noticed between the number of voters registered and the votes counted.’ The evidence is building up and so is the mistrust. At many places ordinary citizens have come out on the streets to express their resentment against EVMs.
It will not be out of place to quote from a presentation made during the meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in Boston. The session was devoted to ‘space weather’, where Bharat Bhuva, an engineer working at Vanderbilt University, presented a case study. He reported, ‘During a local election in Belgium in 2003, a single scrambled bit of information, almost certainly caused by an errant particle, added 4,096 votes to one candidate’s tally. Since this gave an impossibly high total, the mistake was easily spotted. But had the particle hit a different part of the circuit it might have added a smaller number of votes—enough to change the outcome without anyone noticing.’
This is an example of unintended malfunction, yet it makes the EVM vulnerable. After the detection paper trail was introduced in Belgium all the paper votes were counted and compared with EVM results. The results never matched.
Irish Government, introduced EVMs in three constituencies in 2002, a number of security and transparency issues were raised, a commission was appointed to look into these issues and finally after spending huge amount of money, in 2009 the entire project was scrapped. Ireland did not hesitate to go back to paper and pencil. They decided against ‘undermining the public’s trust’.
There are many developed and developing countries which scrapped or decided against EVMs after due consideration. These include Germany, Netherlands, UK, France and Italy.
Electronic voting machines, world over stand discredited among academic circles. The number of research studies and reports of commissions appointed by various governments are increasing every year. More and more scientific evidence suggesting that no EVM is tamper proof is piling up. However, our Election Commission has maintained that EVMs used in India are safe.
Many experts have challenged this assertion. Firstly, they point out that ‘design has been a closely guarded secret, and, until now, they have never been subjected to a rigorous independent security review’.
Secondly, a group working at Michigan University has technologically demonstrated that Indian EVM can be tampered and votes can be stolen. The authors of the well researched, detailed paper, entitled ‘Security Analysis of India’s Electronic Voting Machines’ published in Oct. 2010, have shown two methods to tamper the machine and claim that ‘A criminal who employed methods like these could alter vote totals in real elections or undermine ballot secrecy to determine how each voter vote.’
Thirdly, since a very large number of EVMs (in 2009 1,378,352 EVMs were in use) are employed in any election, the Michigan Group rightly suggests that legally accessing an EVM machine might be a problem but due to large numbers, it will be impossible to detect when a group of dishonest hackers illegally access it and perform reverse engineering.
Subsequently, there are many research papers published in reputed journals on the vulnerability of Indian EVMs. Scholars have examined security and vulnerability at every stage. Broadly these stages are:
Writing the source code or computer software
Integration of software in the CPU.
Transporting the chips to India,
Assembling components to manufacture control unit and ballot units,
Checking each machine at factory level before the certificate ‘ready for deployment’ is issued,
Rest of the stages are described in detail in a video available on election commission website.
These concerns raised in these research papers cannot be brushed aside saying ‘doubting the security of the EVMs is like asking Sita to prove her virginity [sic] by having Agni pariksha [trial by fire]’, which is what Prof PV Indiresan, Chairman of the Technical Review Committee said in a television interview. Such comments are not only in bad taste, but also do not convince those who are raising serious questions.
In India the Election Commission proudly claims to produce the safest, tamper proof EVMs. In a reply to Satish Chandra Misra, General Secretary, BSP dated March 11,2017, the Election Commission rejected his suspicions by listing six technical security and twelve procedural features. These have been repeated ad nauseam by the votaries of ‘tamper proof EVM’.
Recently, in reference to EVMs, when I made a comment that ‘all machines are invented with an objective to manipulate, with an input and output window, it is unscientific to claim that a machine designed and constructed by human beings is tamper proof’, there were many comments made on Facebook. Most of them agreed with me but some disagreed on the ground that there is security in numbers and a dishonest intruder cannot undertake and execute a nationwide operation.
But some were nasty and uncivilized. They called me ‘anti-national’, ‘Hindu hater’, ‘mad’, ‘Muslim Fundamentalist’, as if it was their religious duty to defend the EVMs. Though I could identify some of them, these were individuals who were raising doubts about the security of EVMs a few years back. Normally, such statements should be ignored as ‘hate comments’ made by fringe elements, but let us not forget that this is how serious defense of EVMs offered by experts like Prof. Indiresan, gets translated into the public discourse. Do not engage in debate, if you don’t agree, cast aspersion on the integrity of the person. This is the latest Mantra.
The most potent argument propounded in favour of EVMs is that due to the introduction of electronic machines, the era of booth capturing has gone into oblivion. A machine is designed to accept only five votes per minutes, and that too, after each one is authorized by the polling officer. EVMs have rendered booth capturing futile, which has reduced the use of muscle power. Thus, as the argument goes, it is a very welcome development in a developing country.
But let us not forget that the use of police force has also increased during this period tremendously. Every election is conducted in phases and the voter is also far more assertive as compared to the bygone era. So giving all the credit to EVMs would be erroneous.
Let us also not forget that when a booth was captured political parties could never capture all booths. The act was visible and was reported in the press. Re-polling was ordered in all such cases, and this number was always small compared to the number of polling booths in a state.
However, if we presume that one EVM can be manipulated, then we have to agree that all EVMs can be manipulated. We also have to agree with the preposition that EVMs can be selectively targeted. And most importantly, the entire operation will be hidden from the eyes of political parties, media and the sovereign. Citizens will never know who has stolen their vote.
Many have jumped the fence, those who were vocal against EVMs till recently, have become silent and those who were silent have become vocal. The argument that only the losers raise uncomfortable questions is quite unfortunate. Yes, in any democracy the winning party never raises doubts about the process of elections. It is the responsibility of the experts, skeptics and losers to raise doubts. More often than not, opposition parties and losers have saved democracies. At times they have paid huge costs for not raising right questions at the right time. Hitler’s Germany is a good example.
Instead of discrediting those who have raised issues of integrity about the EVMs, it is the duty of the Election Commission to review the security features every time a serious question is raised.
In this cacophony, the serious question as how some one can get a zero vote when he has voted for himself remains unanswered. How can the total number of votes exceed the total votes cast?
Working with a ‘null hypothesis’ is always better.
Almost all present day scientific research is carried using ‘Null hypotheses’. Start with the assumption that EVMs are not tamperproof. At various stages of electoral process it can be and has been invaded by dishonest groups and results. Then systematically prove that the probability of invasion is zero.
The hypothesis in relation to assumption that ‘all 1,378,352 EVMs need to be manipulated for controlling national general election results’ will be that ‘you can control a national general election result by tampering with an optimally small number of EVMs’. In an exercise on actual data of a constituency, I could prove that by changing the results in less than 10 percent EVMs one can make the candidate who has scored second, a winner. Which proves that the ‘security in numbers’ argument is completely fallacious and misleading.
In response to all the questions posed, every doubt raised or every evidence produced, just repeating ‘EVMs are fool proof’, will cause a trust deficit.
The direction issued by the Supreme Court to install a printer with every EVM is a step towards making the election process more secure. As reported in the press Election Commission has asked the government to provide Rs 3100 crores for installing 16 lakh VVPATs.
After receiving no response to ten letters the Election Commission approached the Prime Minister for intervention. It will take about 2-3 years to implement from the day the budget is sanctioned. The leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha accused the government of delaying the implementation of a paper trail, deliberately. One after the other leaders of the opposition parties have kept casting aspersions on the security of the EVMs since the Assembly elections recently.
It is obvious that there is a serious trust deficit, which has crossed the threshold and even the political parties are becoming restless.
As a scientifically tempered society, let us assume there is a method to subvert EVMs and thereby manipulate Indian democracy. Will all candidates be not interested in using it?
Suppose it is too complex and expensive and individual candidates cannot afford it. Will the political parties with deep pockets be not interested in using it?
Suppose our political parties are honest and worried about democracy and have decided not to use it. Will the international corporate sector, which has offered bribes in the past and continues to do so, not use it to subvert election results?
Will the CIA, which is famous for manipulating results of elections across the globe, not use it? Some one could say that now we are friendly with the USA, so the CIA may leave us alone. My last question would then be:what about Pakistan’s ISI?
(Gauhar Raza is Former Prof. AcSIR, Chief Scientist National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources).