In February 2004, the Karnataka High Court hailed, in a case involving former Railway Minister CK Jaffer Sharief, the electronic voting machines (EVMs) used by the Election Commission as ‘national pride’.
That pride of the largest democracy of the world is today facing the crisis of credibility. Many prominent leaders in the country have raised doubts about the reliability of EVMs. The trend is not new. Even top BJP leaders questioned the EVM’s reliability when the party was in the Opposition.
The doubts were aired as soon as election results for the Assembly polls in five states were announced in March this year. BSP chief Mayawati was the first to allege that the EVMs had been tampered with in the UP Assembly election.
AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal too joined the bandwagon, blaming EVM tampering for his party’s loss in Punjab polls. While Mayawati did not press the EVM question button too hard, Kejriwal carried on. One of the AAP MLAs, Saurabh Bhardwaj ‘demonstrated’ in the Delhi Assembly that EVMs could be tampered with, prompting Kejriwal to claim that the voting machine could be hacked in 90 seconds.
The Election Commission has repeatedly denied the charge and rebuffed the claim that EVMs owned and maintained by it could be hacked. The electronic voting machine has faced similar crisis of credibility in other parts of the world as well.
THE WORLD EXPERIENCE
There are about 120 countries in the world that practice democracy. Of all those democratic countries, only about 25 have experimented with or used electronic voting machines to elect their governments. So, the EVM is not the dominant choice of the world for recording votes in elections.
The countries that have used electronic voting include small nations like Estonia to the oldest democracy, the United States of America.
A Wikipedia search shows that Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Norway, Philippines, Romania, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, the UK, Scotland and Venezuela have used electronic voting in some form or the other.
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
The US is the oldest modern democracy in the world. It is in its 25th decade of democracy but the country does not have a uniform voting system. Several states continue to use ballot papers, while others have shifted to electronic voting. Some experimented with the electronic voting system but returned to the ballot papers in the face of apprehensions.
A critical point in electronic voting experiment in the US has been that its voting machines are connected to a server and operate using the internet. This makes them vulnerable to cyberattacks. In the last presidential election, some invisible Russian hand was suspected in influencing voters’ choice.
This mode of EVM functioning has been questioned several times and has even forced some countries to do away with electronic voting. But, incidentally, they have generally not thought of introducing non-networked standalone EVMs – as used in India – to use in elections in their countries.
CURIOUS CASE OF GERMANY
Germany is the largest democracy in Europe. It introduced electronic voting in 2005. Germany imported voting machines to conduct its elections from a private company in the Netherlands.
The machines were later reported to have several layers of deficiencies. Germany intended to do away with those infirmities in its machines but before that the matter reached its highest court.
In 2009, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany held that the use of electronic voting machines in elections was unconstitutional and observed that such a practice lacked transparency. Germany, unlike India, has not passed a law authorizing use of electronic voting machines for casting votes in elections.
SUCCESS OF ESTONIA
Germany could have looked at Estonia, a small country with a population of merely 13 lakh. Estonia became the first country in the world to enact a law making electronic voting using the internet mandatory. It passed the law in 2005.
Estonia claims to have conducted the first internet-based national election in 2007. It went for three days.
THE LATIN AMERICAN WAY
Among the bigger democracies, Brazil and Venezuela have used electronic voting on a large scale quite successfully.
Brazil is the fifth most populous country and one of the emerging economic powerhouses of the world. It started using electronic voting in 1996 – when India’s Election Commission was being revolutionised by the then Chief Election Commissioner TN Sheshan.
Like India, Brazil has used electronic voting in all the elections in this century. Brazil conducts its elections using about 5.3 lakh voting machines. Results are declared within hours of conducting elections there.
Venezeula followed suit and introduced electronic voting in 1998. In 2004, when EVMs were used in India for all parliamentary constituencies for the first time, Venezuela added the voter verifiable paper trail to remove doubts on reliability of electronic voting machines.
Venezuela had its own share of controversies as it was reported that the winning candidate had a stake in the company that supplied voting machines.
Nevertheless, Venezuela continued to improve its electronic voting system by opting for use of touch screens that could register thumbprints of voters in order to avoid any duplication of votes. However, this system may not work in India where voters’ secrecy is considered paramount.
THE INDIAN MANTRA
India is the world leader in the use of EVMs for elections. The Election Commission has conducted all elections through EVMs since 2001. In 2014, a whopping 55.38 crore people cast their votes in EVMs in the parliamentary elections.
The Indian EVM is a direct recording device, which is a stand-alone machine. The Election Commission has clarified several times that Indian EVMs don’t talk to any machine outside its own system – be it through wired network, internet, satellite, WiFi or Bluetooth.
The EVM is not connected to server, so cyber hacking of Indian EVMs is not possible unless an authorised person acts with malafide intention.
HOW ELECTION COMMISSION CONDUCTS POLL: THINGS TO KNOW
- The Election Commission has put in place a multi-layered security protocol to ensure that EVMs record the actual vote.
- The first-level check of the machines is done by the Election Commission, months before the actual voting. All political party representatives are present to observe the exercise. Faulty machines are removed.
- The EVMs are selected by computers on the principle of randomisation. This process does not allow a prior knowledge or planned setting for a particular EVM in a particular constituency or at a particular polling booth.
- There is a double randomisation process for pairing of the ballot unit and control unit of the EVM. This step makes it impossible for a person to know how the machines would be paired and which machine will be used in which constituency.
- The final order of the candidates is not placed on the ballot unit of the EVM till the last day of withdrawal of names. When this is done, usually 13 days ahead of the polling, EVMs are again tested for proper functioning.
- The representatives of political parties and candidates are present during this exercise. They sign a certificate, saying that the EVMs are in order after the process completes to their satisfaction.
- Before being finally dispatched to the polling booths, the EVMs are sealed with a unique security number. At this stage too, the representatives of the parties or candidates are present and sign on the seal.
- The Election Commission places the names of the candidates in an alphabetical order for each constituency to wipe out the possibility of predictability.
- On top of it, the Election Commission has stated that all future elections would be held with VVPAT, making it possible for every voter to see that his/her vote goes to the chosen candidate only.
- VVPAT was used in eight of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies in 2014, in 33 of the 117 Assembly segments during Punjab Assembly elections and in all the constituencies in Goa state polls early this year.
Image courtesy: same as above