Electronic Voting Machine – Is their a ghost inside it?

The Election Commission of India has renounced the conventional voting method of using ballot papers by introducing the Electronic Voting Machines or EVMs. Under the secret ballot system, the voter would cast his vote by affixing a stamp against the name of his preferred candidate and then fold the ballot paper in the prescribed manner and finally insert it into the ballot box. To overcome this lengthy and time-consuming procedure, the whole election process in the country was automated and mechanized. The first use of EVMs was made in the General Elections of 2004. Even though they were used earlier in many constituencies, the usage was on an experimental basis and it was only in 2004 that the machines were used comprehensively and extensively completely eliminating the ballot system.

EVMs consist of two units – a ballot unit and a control unit. The Control unit is used by the people working at the polling stations and the ballot unit is used by the voters. Both the units are attached via cable. The ballot unit is a long rectangular device with the names of the candidates and their party symbol next to a plastic button. On each ballot unit a maximum of 16 names can be provided and if the number exceeds beyond that then an additional ballot unit can be connected to the system. A maximum of four units can be connected together.  The vote is given by pressing the button next to the favourite candidate following which the LED indicator lights up with the sound of a beep which is indicative of the fact that the vote has been registered. Each EVM can record up to a maximum of 3840 votes.

Often, it has been argued that the advantages offered by an EVM makes it more preferable than the postal ballot system. These advantages include clarity of operation since a voter has to just press the button for his/her vote to get registered. Other than that it also speeds up the vote-counting process since there is no vagueness in interpreting votes and declaring the results within a few hours becomes achievable. We also cannot overlook the environmental advantages that EVMs offer by saving the Herculean task of printing tones of ballot papers which would again cost thousands of trees. This also reduces the cost of election expenses by 30-40 % (As stated by Karnataka High Court in Michael B. Fernades Vs. C.K. Jaffer Sharief & Ors. EP No. 29/1999). Also, it’s easier to carry one single machine to the polling booth compared to large boxes with thousands and thousands of ballot papers. One of the biggest features of the machine is that it can record to the maximum of five votes in a minute and 300 votes in an hour. This can reduce the likelihood of miscreants who stuff the paper ballot box with illegitimate votes or destroy the votes that have already been dropped in the box.

Over and again, the question of ‘rigging’ has been considered by courts across the country. Many courts have expressed their confidence in the machines, for example Madrad High Court in All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Vs. The Chief Election Commissioner, Election Commission of India & Ors. (W.P. Nos. 3346 etc. of 2001) clearly stated that EVMs were not computers and hence no virus could be introduced in them. Despite this, the machine has been subjected to severe criticism. Instances of irregularities and malfunctioning at various situations have raised questions about it’s reliability. The most recent example being the Delhi Assembly Polls of 2013 when voting at many polling stations was delayed due to malfunctioning of EVMs. Since it is an electronic device many even suggest that it is vulnerable to hacking and software tampering hence cannot be tagged as “perfect”. Interfering and meddling with an electronic device might be difficult but not absolutely impossible, even a minor possibility may lead to a catastrophic situation. A research conducted by Hari K Prasad (a Hyderabad based technologist), J Alex Halderman (Professor at the University of Michigan) and Rop Gonggrijp ( a technology activist from Holland) subjected the EVMs to various test to establish that the machines are not full-proof.

Is Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) the answer? VVPAT would allow a voter to verify his vote with a printed paper ballot containing the serial number, name of the candidate and poll symbol. The introduction of VVPAT was suggested in Dr Subramaniam Swamy Vs. Election Commission of India (WP P (C) No. 11879 OF 2009 as decided on 17.01.2012) as an assurance for the voter that his vote has been registered. Even though the Delhi High Court accepted that the machine was susceptible to fraud but considered the idea of installing VVPAT as cost-consuming and violation of confidentiality. However, the case went on appeal and the Supreme Court had a completely different view on the subject and considered paper-trail as an indispensable requirement of free and fair elections and necessary to achieve the confidence of the voters.

 VVPAT was first experimented in an assembly by-poll in Nagaland and used in Mizoram and Delhi elections last year. Even though instances of malfunctioning of VVPATs were recorded yet the experience has not been too bad.

There has been a lot of debate and discussion over the efficacy of EVMs and many have suggested going back to the traditional ballot system to be best in national interest. Both the systems have their own advantages and disadvantages. Fraudulent practices of ballot tampering and booth capturing were possible under the old system and are possible even under the new system. The central question should not be how vulnerable a particular system of voting is to malpractices, the question should be what can be done to minimize the occurrences of such malpractices. Democracy is not defined by the system of voting that is being used in a country it is defined by the people who constitute it. The ‘Ghost’ is not in the machine, the ‘Ghost’ is within us and elections can never be corruption free unless and until we fight this ‘Ghost’.

About the Author

Supreet 1Supreet Kaur

Supreet is a lawyer by profession with special interest in the field of Environmental Law and Sustainable Development. In order to pursue her passion of helping others she quit her job and took on volunteering. She is currently a UN online volunteer and works with multiple non-profit organisations in the field of peace and security, environment and social justice. She loves writing, dreaming and reading fairy tales. She is a creative person and can vouch for her love for origami.

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