Should India dump EVMs, go back to ballots?

Magazine Opinion

Voting machines are tamper-proof and perfect for Indian elections

India is the world’s largest democracy. With an electorate of more than 817 million, it would be foolish to go back to paper ballots. It is like going back to bullock carts because cars and planes are hijacked once in a while. Electronic voting machines (EVMs) are an evolving technology. We must adapt, learn and make changes to improve their performance.

We switched to EVMs in the first place because they are much more user-friendly than ballot papers. Through EVMs, we save tonnes of paper that would otherwise go waste after the elections. In the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, 8,800 tonnes of paper was used, while in 1999, 7,700 tonnes was used. EVMs can be used over and over again. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 61 crore Indians voted. In such a massive election process, counting ballot papers could result in human errors. 

Counting votes for one assembly constituency through EVMs takes two to three hours, while counting ballots takes 30-40 hours.

We’ve seen multiple Bollywood movies where dacoits hold people at gunpoint and forge votes. There have been live examples of booth capturing in India. During the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, journalist Madhavan Narayanan witnessed booth capturing and stuffing of votes in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh. He wrote he heard gunshots and saw bodies. Acting on Narayanan’s article, then chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan ordered repolling in the entire constituency.  

It is impossible to cast invalid or extra votes through EVMs. An EVM permits only 240 votes per hour. Hence, stuffing of votes in ballot boxes is not possible. In ballot-paper polling, if a voter put the stamp correctly, or if it touched the margins, the vote would be deemed invalid. This resulted in disputes at the time of counting.

study conducted by political scientists Zuheir Desai and Alexander Lee from the University of Rochester analyzed data from three Lok Sabha elections. It said EVMs almost eliminated invalid votes. “This result stems directly from the design of the machine: Indian EVMs, with their finite menu of buttons, make it almost impossible to cast invalid ballots,” their report said. 

EVMs are not just safer but have also helped in increasing the vote share of small parties. They have also widened the margin by which a party wins. Experts also say that using these technical machines might be one of the most optimal ways of increasing electoral power and greater participation from the disadvantaged and the poor.

In 2009, the BJP claimed the United Progressive Alliance won the Lok Sabha elections because of an EVM fraud. BJP leader L.K. Advani demanded the Election Commission replace EVMs with paper ballots. The Congress and many other political parties levelled the same charges when a BJP-led alliance won in 2014. Parties that perform poorly in elections have always chosen to blame EVMs. 

Is there any truth in these allegations? Many petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court, only to be rejected. The EC had, in 2009 and 2017, challenged political parties to show how EVMs can be tampered with. But no party could back their arguments. Many controversies have been created about EVM hacking and tampering, but these are nothing in front of the drawbacks of ballot papers. There is no concrete evidence that an EVM can be hacked. 

A research paper by economists Sisir Debnath of the Indian School of Business, Mudit Kapoor of the Indian Statistical Institute and Shamika Ravi of Brookings India said EVMs not only helped reduce election fraud, but also helped improve development outcomes by empowering poor and marginal voters.

To boost voter confidence the EC introduced Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (VVPAT) in 2013. These allow the voter to see a printout of the name and the party for seven seconds. VVPAT machines are independent of EVMs. However, one drawback is that VVPAT machines are not placed in all polling stations; they are placed in randomly selected places. The EC should rectify this.  The EC can indeed do a better job of introducing new technologies, but it is not justified to say that we should go back to paper ballots. India, which is aiming to be a technology superpower, cannot act in a retrograde manner. 

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