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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 27, Dated July 10, 2010

The Case Against Electronic Voting

Why is India embracing EVMs, when the world is moving away from them, as they are easy to tamper with?

ELECTRONIC VOTING machines (EVMs) have been in universal use in India since the general election of 2004, when paper ballots were phased out completely. For the past several months, there has been a flood of opposition to the EVMs by political parties. Last month, heads of 13 political parties including Prakash Karat, Chandrababu Naidu, Jayalalithaa, Sharad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad submitted a joint memorandum to the Election Commission of India (ECI), demanding a review of the use of EVMs. Earlier, BJP veteran LK Advani expressed reservations over the continued use of EVMs.

The opposition to EVMs has acquired momentum after a recent collaborative study, comprising Indian and Dutch researchers and American scientists from the University of Michigan, demonstrated how Indian EVMs can be manipulated and results altered by inserting a Trojan (malicious software programme) in the display unit of an EVM. The study concluded that Indian EVMs are vulnerable to fraud.

Democracy march Poll agents and armed guards escort EVMs to Shep Basti, Darjeeling, West Bengal

India’s experience with electronic voting is similar to the US and western Europe. Electronic voting systems have come to be criticised in a number of countries for not meeting minimal standards of system integrity, transparency and verifiability, and for not allowing a fair recount in case of disputes.

Germany discarded it after its Federal Constitutional Court held electronic voting as unconstitutional in March 2009. Holland and Ireland too have abandoned EVMs following widespread concerns. Save India and Brazil, nowhere are EVMs being used nationwide in elections.

By ‘stealing’ 200 votes from 50 EVMs each in a Lok Sabha constituency, one could change the winner in 164 seats in 2009

Today, reliability of electronic voting machines is a subject of intense political debate and media scrutiny across the world. The New York Times in an editorial titled, “How to Trust Electronic Voting” said, “Electronic voting machines that do not produce a paper record of every vote cast cannot be trusted… There is no way to be sure that a glitch or intentional vote theft — by malicious software or computer hacking — did not change the outcome. Few issues matter as much as ensuring that election results can be trusted.” (June 21, 2009).

Indian EVMs do not meet the standards followed by mature western democracies. Yet, the ECI maintains the ludicrous refrain that it has foolproof arrangements to prevent fraud and that its EVMs are ‘perfect’ and ‘tamper-proof.’ All that criminals require to hack EVMs, is momentary access (no more than three minutes) to voting machines at any time in their lifespan: during their manufacture, transportation or storage. If security is lax, they can be hacked and kept ready for manipulation before the next election.

There are serious concerns regarding safety of Indian EVMs as they are typically stored in taluka warehouses under the charge of supervisory level officers. One should be naïve (as the ECI expects us to be), to assume that these lowly officials cannot be influenced or compromised to gain momentary access to the voting machines at any time in their life cycle. Just look around to see the scale of fraud that goes on in every sphere of life. If political bosses can perpetrate fraud in the Indian Premier League, would they not be tempted to commit electoral fraud?

If you like conspiracy theories, let me mention a more frightening prospect. If the public sector EVM manufacturers and their employees are compromised, they can insert a Trojan to manipulate election results at will. There is no safeguard in the current electronic voting system against fraud perpetrated with the complicity of manufacturers, their authorised technicians or local officials.

The ECI says we must “trust” the EVM manufacturers and their authorised technicians used for maintenance and checking; district and taluka level officials and even foreign manufacturing companies involved in copying “secret” software into microchips installed in the EVMs.

The ECI seems to have abiding faith in not only the PSU manufacturers but also in two multinational companies (MNCS), Microchip of the US and Renesas of Japan. These companies have been given “top secret” EVM software that has not been shared with even the expert committee of the ECI, which comprises three professors from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi. Apparently, the expert committee is considered to be a threat but not the MNCS. Sounds strange indeed!

THERE ARE more shocking facts. The operation that foreign companies carry out — copying the EVM software onto microchips installed in EVMs — is something that the EVM manufacturers could have done securely in their own factory premises. But, this ultra sensitive process has been outsourced to foreign companies.

Ominously, the EVM manufacturers do not even know whether the microchips returned to them (after the software is loaded) contain the original software, which they have supplied, or a tampered code. This is because the microchips are ‘masked’ and do not have a facility to read back the contents.

What was the great idea in engaging MNCS and their vendors and suppliers in India in a critical activity? Who authorised the supply of software to MNCS? There are no answers from the ECI to such questions. Another defense of the ECI is that election fraud is not possible in India as no one can tamper with 1.3 million EVMs and influence lakhs of poll officials to manipulate election outcomes. The ECI misses the point.

Flipping elections doesn’t require fixing EVMs on a nationwide scale. For instance, if 200 votes are ‘stolen’ from a rival candidate from 50 EVMs in parliamentary constituencies, one would be stealing just 10,000 votes. This sort of intelligent and targeted “fixing” could have changed the winner in 164 parliamentary constituencies, 30 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha, by merely hacking 8,200 EVMs.

If somebody were to perpetrate fraud as outlined above, there is no way to establish it. EVMs used in Indian elections store voting data only in electronic memory. There is no physical record of votes cast. Thus, in case of doubt, a genuine recount or audit is not possible. The current Indian EVMs offer a huge opportunity and incentive to perpetrate undetectable election fraud.

India’s electoral democracy. It is principally for this reason that paperless electronic voting is being rejected the world over. India should follow suit by either abandoning EVMs altogether or by introducing safeguards that make the election process transparent, verifiable and auditable.

(Rao is an election analyst)
WRITER’S EMAIL: [email protected]

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 27, Dated July 10, 2010

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