Should India dump EVMs, go back to ballots?

Magazine Opinion

Image Courtesy: The Print

It’s possible to physically hack EVMs; Govt. must make way for paper ballots

India should go back to using paper ballots in elections. Or, at least, voters should be given an option. 

India is the world’s largest democracy. Every time there is an election, the credibility of electronic voting machines (EVMs) is questioned. Experts have repeatedly raised concerns about EVMs. But the Election Commission has ignored them or has offered unsatisfactory responses. 

The EC introduced EVMs in 1982 saying that paper ballots caused miscalculation, wastage of paper and vote tampering. 

However, the cost of conducting an election using paper ballots is less than deploying EVMs. The amount of paper used in printing newspapers every day is equivalent to the amount of paper used once in five years for elections.

The United States still uses the paper ballot system for its presidential elections. Germany, in 2014, reintroduced the paper ballot system alongside EVMs.

Some people say EVMs can be reused multiple times and are cheap, but EVMs have to be changed every 15 years. The Law Commission in 2019 said Rs 4,500 crore is required to buy new EVMs for Lok Sabha elections. 

An EVM cannot be hacked by remote access, such as through the Internet, as it is not connected to a network. But it is possible to physically hack an EVM by placing a sensor, replacing buttons, and changing the electronic display. This can be done while it is transported to a polling booth, during the counting process, or years before an election.

In May 2017, Aam Aadmi Party MLA Saurabh Bharadwaj illustrated how to hack an ECI-EVM prototype in Parliament. The Election Commission denied Bharadwaj’s claim saying that the machine that was hacked was a “lookalike”, and not a real EVM used by it.

To curtail frauds, malfunctioning of EVMs, and for greater credibility to the election process, the commission introduced Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (VVPATs) in 2013. A VVPAT machine is placed in between the EVM and the control unit. VVPAT displays the party’s name and the symbol the voter votes for. However, only one booth in a constituency undergoes complete VVPAT verification.

Unlike EVMs, VVPATs can be easily hacked through a network. Malware introduced into a VVPAT’s control unit can mislead voters by displaying the symbol they voted for, and store a different response in the control unit.

Kannan Gopinathan, a former IAS officer, informed News Click: “With VVPAT, nobody knows what is going into the control unit, and now the machine also knows which button is assigned for which party.”

In 2017, Manoranjan Roy, an RTI activist in Mumbai, filed an RTI with EC and Bharat Electronics Ltd and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd, the only two EVM manufacturers in India, for the number of EVMs produced from 1989-2016. According to the poll panel’s response, it received 10 lakh EVMs from BEL and 10.1 lakh EVMs from ECIL. However, BEL said it supplied 19.6 lakh EVMs to EC. ECIL said in its RTI response that it had manufactured close to two lakh more control units and more than three lakh extra ballot units than what was disclosed by EC. These discrepancies are shocking. In recent years, the reputation of EC has taken a severe beating.

Digitalization is on the ascent in every field. But not all diversion is the same. For example, a fraud in elections is not the same as a misrepresentation in a Web-based business. Elections are the most important thing for any democratic country. The trust of voters in the voting system is the more important than convenience or cost-effectiveness. A secure digital voting system or paper ballot system will ensure the confidence of voters and prevent the failure of a nation.

Only poor countries try to implement EVMs so they can sell themselves to rich countries in the name of special economic zones.

In the words of Stalin, “Those who cast votes are nothing, but who count are everything.”

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