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21 March 2017

EVM tampering row: To err is human, but to really foul things up...

India needs a clean-up. India Gate, New Delhi.

Leaders of almost all political parties have in the past raised doubts on the integrity of electronic voting machines, or EVMs.

Although the people who have complained about rigged machines always happened to be the ones who did not win elections, the Election Commission of India has maintained that the machines cannot be tampered with. The ECI has relied on science and the finality of electrical signals in its defence and has avoided walking on the quicksand of political accusations.

Back in 2009 when the United Progressive Alliance came to power again after the general elections, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Subramanian Swamy and G.V.L. Rao found something fishy with the EVMs. The two ‘losers’ did not take into account a Rs60,000 crore farm loan waiver announced by former finance minister P. Chidambaram in the Union Budget for fiscal 2009, as the reason behind the UPA’s comeback.

Fast forward to today. The Aam Aadmi Party, nursing a grudge against the winners in Punjab after a poor show in the Assembly polls, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, unable to fathom why it lost the plot in Uttar Pradesh, want the authorities to check the integrity of EVMs. They have accused the central government of doing something to the machines to steal votes for the BJP.
Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad recently told reporters that the EVMs should be examined as they “were made in Gujarat and were supplied from there”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs to Gujarat.
All the malcontents – Mr Swamy, Mr Rao, AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal and BSP president Mayawati – had one thing in common: The thought that EVMs could have been comprised struck them only when their parties did not win. What if they had won? Would they have said the same thing?

The Supreme Court in 2009 dismissed Mr Rao’s petition to investigate his allegation of EVM tampering, asking him to approach the ECI. The election agency then came out with a lengthy public document detailing point-by-point steps on how the machines were secured from attempts to hack them, and the process that the ECI followed to check their fallibility. The ECI has since then intermittently replied to court petitions, explaining the science behind EVM security.

Petitions filed before at least three high courts – Madras high court, Bombay high court and Madhya Pradesh high court (Jabalpur bench) – were also dismissed.

One of the chief reasons why allegations of EVM tampering refuse to die down could be lack of trust in technology. The layperson does not understand circuit wizardry. Despite the ECI’s attempts to explain how EVMs work, what happens after one pushes that button on the machine rests on faith in science.

Some researchers have said that they could break into EVMs. In 2010, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported that after connecting a home-made device to one of the voting machines used in India, University of Michigan researchers were able to change results by sending text messages from a mobile phone.

Former deputy election commissioner, Alok Shukla, told the BBC then that getting hold of machines to tamper with would be very difficult. "It is not just the machine, but the overall administrative safeguards which we use that make it absolutely impossible for anybody to open the machine," he told the BBC.

Getting voters to trust anything electronic in nature is a hard task. A parallel may be drawn on such a lack of trust in digital devices from the demonetisation of high-value Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes in November 2016.
Before the notes were banned, mobile wallet firms struggled to make decent money although the infrastructure was sound. People did not want to risk seeing their hard-earned cash reflected as mere digits on palm-size devices that could also be misplaced or stolen easily. What if the digits disappeared for no reason? Who would take the responsibility?
If hard cash gave a reassuring feel in the hand, a piece of paper that proved one had voted also gave peace of mind.
The first widespread use of EVMs – comprising a punch-card and a computer to tally the votes – was in the 1964 US presidential election in seven counties. In 1975, the National Bureau of Standards published a study “Effective use of computing technology in vote-tallying”.

The NBS, now renamed as the National Institute of Standards and Technology under the US department of commerce, is a non-regulatory agency that promotes industrial innovation.

The NBS in the 1975 study identified three main problems in using computers to tally votes. They were: “Management failures, such as failures to institute adequate equipment and procedure testing and checkout; human operational failures, such as errors in operation of computing equipment, and technical failures, such as computer program errors...”

“The initial use of these systems typically was in conjunction with business computers that were being employed for a variety of applications by governments or nearby corporate installations,” the report said.

Imagine, the machine that some nations use to elect their government started out as a tool to help businesses in the US.

There is a difference between the EVMs used in the US and India. The American authorities use two separate systems – one device to collect votes, and another to count them. The counting device is a computer, which may be vulnerable to hacking.

The Indian EVM, however, is a closed system that records votes and spit out the final count from a single unit. There is no separate computer to count votes, and the machines come sealed from the plant. So, theoretically, rigging could happen only in the final stage of manufacturing.
Allegations of EVM tampering, therefore, affect the manufacturers, which is a serious matter. The catch is there is a so-called controller device linked to the EVM. The malcontents suspect that this device is the weak link.
EVMs are made by Bharat Electronics Ltd and Electronics Corp. of India Ltd, both state-run firms.

The ECI on its website says EVMs made in 1989-90 were used in an experiment for the first time in 16 assembly constituencies in Madhya Pradesh (five), Rajasthan (five) and Delhi (six) in 1998 when state elections were held.

Above all else, the allegations that some EVMs in the 2017 assembly elections in at least two states – Uttar Pradesh and Punjab – had been tampered with may weaken the edifice of India’s stable democracy. If the ECI, which helps citizens elect their government, is dragged into political sloganeering, elections may descend into a free-for-all process of sending the wrong people to public posts. To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer. So it goes.

Over to the courts.

A shorter version of this comment appeared in The Asian Age.

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Journalist. Taking a walk in India. | Email to journeybasket[at]gmail | Special thanks to M.S. Gopal | All rights reserved. No commercial use.

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