Why you should care
Because those criticizing India’s electronic voting machines have failed to show how they can be hacked.
The 2016 U.S. presidential elections spawned a debate on the credibility of the country’s electoral process, with the prospect of Russian interference shadowing the 2020 elections. In India, the world’s largest democracy, a similar debate is intensifying ahead of the country’s elections, which got under way this week. There’s no foreign power involved, though. Instead, the debate is over how trustworthy India’s electronic voting machines (EVM) are, and how vulnerable to possible manipulation by the party in power.
In itself, the debate isn’t new in India, or around the world. But India’s EVMs are fundamentally different from electronic voting practices that have sparked concerns in several other countries. Unlike those of other countries, India’s machines are offline, inaccessible via the internet. In India, what started out as genuine concerns have transformed into a thinly veiled excuse each time parties lose elections — no matter that the Election Commission of India (ECI), recognized across major democracies for its independence, has taken steps to address the worries.
Claims by political parties and technologists that the EVM could be manipulated resulted in a Supreme Court directive to introduce a voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) system. With this method, a voter can match her electronic choice with a paper slip that’s printed once the vote is cast. It’s an independent verification system for voters and to audit stored electronic results.
But in March, 21 opposition political parties petitioned the Supreme Court again, demanding that the ECI verify at least half of all votes using VVPATs. The ECI had planned to do so in only about 4,500 of the more than 1 million polling stations where the country’s 900 million eligible voters can vote. In February, a group of 73 retired government officers had also questioned the ECI’s plans, in an open letter. The Supreme Court has settled on a compromise, ordering the audit at about 20,000 polling stations.
Manipulating EVM vote counts through collusion is next to impossible.
And so, we are back to the central question: Are EVMs reliable? And can Indian citizens be confident that their votes in the 2019 national elections will go to the candidate they’ve picked?
Overwhelming evidence suggests that the answer is yes. The EVMs aren’t perfect, but the fear that they are susceptible to large-scale fraud and manipulation is completely misplaced. Here’s why.
The group of former civil servants claimed that EVMs are subject to malfunction, like any other electronic gadget, and to manipulation, through insider collusion. They’ve suggested the paper trail audit for a “statistically significant sample size” of the vote machines, chosen randomly.
But India’s electoral process has enough checks and balances to ensure that any electronic malfunction — which is indeed possible — doesn’t distort electoral outcomes. In a new book titled Electronic Voting Machines: The True Story, Alok Shukla, former deputy election commissioner, says that 1.67 percent of all EVMs — which are pretested — malfunctioned before or during polling in the 2014 elections. In each such case, elections were reordered.
Manipulating EVM vote counts through collusion is next to impossible. For this, the attacker has to bypass several layers of technical and administrative security measures without getting caught. EVMs have no remote connectivity feature — they can’t be accessed through the internet or Bluetooth — and their software can’t be reprogrammed. Manipulation is only possible if someone were to get prolonged, unauthorized access to securely located EVMs. Even then, mandatory mock polls conducted in the presence of polling agents of each candidate would easily detect tampered machines.
Critics of the EVMs point to other democracies — France and Finland — where reviews of electronic voting led to recommendations against the practice, and ones such as Ireland that have scrapped this voting method. But there’s a fundamental difference — unlike the Indian machines, what most of these other countries were deploying or testing was internet voting, systems vulnerable to hacking. It’s no surprise then that none of the 1,500 EVMs audited so far against paper trails have shown a mismatch.
The demand by political parties that 50 percent of VVPATs be counted would have turned the paper trails into something they were never meant for — determining electoral outcomes. Manual counting of voter slips could lead to another round of allegations of insider collusion during the process. Even with the Supreme Court’s order, the cycle of charges and rebuttals may well resume as the elections play out.
The arguments by political parties must be viewed with their track record in mind. The tradition of losing parties blaming electoral processes for their losses rather than their own governance record began with India’s first elections in 1951. Once EVMs were introduced, “black box” machines became easy targets for all political parties. As early as 2009, the ECI had invited anyone to demonstrate how EVMs could be tampered. Parties either didn’t take up the challenge or failed to prove the accusations of tampering.
EVMs have made “booth capturing” — where supporters of a party physically capture a remote polling station and stuff the ballot box to influence the total count — a thing of the past. Make no mistake, India’s electoral process has flaws — fraudulent voter IDs, difficulties eligible voters face in registering and fake news. It’s these challenges India needs to focus on — when votes are counted on May 23, the EVMs can be trusted.
Pranay Kotasthane is a fellow at the Takshashila Institution, an independent center for research and education in public policy.