05/04/2017 3:51 PM IST | Updated 06/04/2017 8:50 AM IST

Why India Needs A Paper Trail For Free And Fair Elections

EVMs come with a host of issues.

Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters
Members of election staff carry electronic voting machines (EVM).

Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) have been a topic of discussion in the national media for a few weeks now, with parties alleging tampering in election results. Indeed, similar allegations have been raised by many political parties every time election results are declared. But, how is it different this time around? Can the EVMs be actually tampered with?

An EVM is powered by a single 6-volt alkaline battery that does not need electricity and consists of two units—one is the "control unit ", which is the brain and is controlled by the presiding officer; the other one is the "balloting unit", through which the voter casts her vote. They are joined together by a 5ft cable. The voter can cast the vote in a small secret compartment, only when the presiding officer authorises it by pushing the ballot button through his control unit. An EVM can record only a maximum of 3840 votes and can cater to not more than 64 candidates.

How come countries like the USA, Germany, Italy, UK and the Netherlands (among others) stick to paper ballots rather than EVMs?

As many of you are aware, before EVMs were introduced, voting happened through ballot papers. This system, of course, had drawbacks such as booth capturing, rigging, problems in maintenance, printing, storing the ballot boxes, etc. The Election Commission to overcome all this, in collaboration with the Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL), came up with the idea of electronic voting and hence were born the EVMs. Though EVMs were used for the first time in Kerala in 1982 they were fully implemented pan India in the 1998 general elections—since then ballot papers were never used. The EVMs bring in a great convenience and make things simpler in many aspects, especially in a country like India which is the biggest democracy in the world.

Nonetheless, the EC and EVMs faced a lot of criticism from politicians across the spectrum from the very beginning. Many cases were filed by activists across the country at high courts of different states challenging the fallibilities of the EVMs. However, after carefully examining all the pieces of evidence put forth, the courts ruled that EVMs were, in fact, tamper-proof. The EC in an effort to clear the criticism on the EVMs for the first time in the year 2009 showcased 100 EVMs randomly picked from 10 different states in an open-house and challenged anyone to prove that the EVMs are undependable. No one was successful in proving that EVMs are vulnerable.

Yet the controversies continued. For example, in 2010, a group of three scientists led by Professor J Alex Halderman at the University of Michigan hacked an EVM and released a video showing how it was possible to tamper with and fudge the numbers on the machine. The EC responded to it and denied all allegations but the Indian scientist Hari Prasad who was part of the three-member group was arrested as soon as he entered India and was charged with theft for allegedly stealing the EVM.

A paper-trail would make things more transparent and dependable.

It goes without saying that many Western and European countries make the most of the technology and use it sometimes for even the pettiest things. Yet, how come countries like the USA, Germany, Italy, UK and the Netherlands (among others) stick to paper ballots rather than EVMs? Incidentally, many countries also studied the EVM method of voting in India but finally decided to use paper ballots for the simple reason that there needs to be a paper trail in order to ensure free and fair elections.

Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT)

In the year 2010, the EC called all the political parties for a meeting to discuss the issue of EVMs in order to bring much more transparency because of growing criticism from leaders and activists. As suggested in the meeting by a few representatives of political parties, the EC started working on VVPAT which prints the receipt showing the symbol of the party as a proof confirming that the vote has been registered correctly, which further is deposited in a ballot box safeguarded by Election Commission. Also, Mr. Subramanian Swamy, the then president of Janata Party, filed a petition in Delhi high court around the same time challenging the EC and claiming that EVMs could be tampered with and a paper-trail was needed to be doubly safe. After hearing the case the court agreed that the EVMs could not be called totally tamper-proof and suggested EC work on VVPAT. Even the Supreme Court in its subsequent order to EC declared that VVPAT is implemented pan India for its 2019 general elections.

It is very important for the EC to implement VVPAT for all future elections, especially when so much water has flowed under the bridge.

Fresh controversies back the case for VVPAT. For example, in the recently concluded BMC elections, independent candidate Shrikant Shirsat got zero votes. He claims that his own vote was for himself and that his family members and neighbours voted for him too, but none of it got registered. Unfortunately, as there is no paper-trail the EC does not have an answer to his valid question. In such a case, a paper-trail would have made things more transparent and dependable.

In another case, as part of the familiarisation exercise by the EC for the by-poll in Bhind, Madhya Pradesh, the VVPAT receipt printed the BJP symbol irrespective of the button pressed, which raised suspicion in the minds of many that EVMs could have been tampered with.

It is very important for the EC to implement VVPAT without any further delay for all future elections, especially when so much water has flowed under the bridge.

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