Saturday, October 2, 2010

Is there a ghost in the machine? Neeta Lal (Issues)

The looming Bihar assembly polls, the controversial arrest and release of a Hyderabad-based researcher who had demonstrated the alleged “tamperability” of electronic voting machines (EVMs) earlier this year on TV and a raft of pending petitions in high courts have collectively re-ignited the contentious debate on EVMs in India.

The issue acquired further political traction when 13 Opposition parties recently asked the Election Commissioner (EC) for an all-party meet to deliberate on the “vulnerability of EVMs”.

Though earlier, the anti-EVM campaign reared its head only sporadically, it gathered a palpable momentum last year when the Congress surpassed all projections to bag 262 seats in the general elections. The result surprised the party even, leading the anti-EVM lobby to raise a cry about the ‘tamper-proof’ nature of the voting machines.

So is there really a ghost in the machine? The question acquires a special salience in the world’s largest democracy where these machines record the political pulse of a billion-plus people. Since 2004, the entire population of India has been voting on EVMs, which number around 1.4 million and are of the controversial “Direct Recording Electronic” (DRE) variety. Vulnerable EVMs means playing with votes which can potentially alter election outcomes and ergo, political history.

There is an unmistakable political undertone to the EVM issue as it directly involves the Election Commission of India (ECI), which ranks among the highest on the credibility index in the country. The machines were a part of the Commission’s drive to usher in electoral reforms in the country.

Arguments for and against the Indian EVM centre on the technology of the machine and security procedures surrounding it. The EC points out that the technology is different from that used by countries where electronic voting has been discontinued, like Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland. That, combined with a raft of administrative safeguards ensures the integrity of the Indian EVM. Further, the randomized distribution of machines ensures that it is well-nigh impossible to know till the last minute which machine goes to which polling booth in which constituency.

Inarguably, the adoption of EVMs has revolutionised India’s democratic process. For one, it is now impossible to do physical ‘booth-capturing’ any more, a practice, which had gained India considerable notoriety in the nineties. Secondly, votes are converted pronto into digital impulses that can be counted with alacrity. Thirdly, statistical data collection, analysis and data mining can all be done seamlessly.

By curbing electoral malpractices, EVMs have been a huge leap forward over the paper ballots system. They have whittled down costs, the time needed to declare results apart from reducing the need for recounts. They have virtually eliminated invalid votes and streamlined the overall poll process.

Unfortunately, the EVMs’ strength is a sword that cuts both ways. Since there is no physical audit trail of the vote, once the voter has cast his vote, there’s no way of verifying that his choice of candidate has been honored. In other words, if a software-savvy criminal were to tinker with the machine’s software, it could swing an election this way or that.

Electronic voting was introduced in many countries. But serious doubts were soon raised about the security, accuracy, reliability and verifiability of electronic elections. Netherlands banned voting machines in 2006 after an activist group demonstrated that the country’s Nedap machines could be wirelessly hacked into.

In 2009, Ireland declared a moratorium on their use. Italy has followed suit. In March 2009, the Supreme Court of Germany ruled that voting through EVMs was unconstitutional. Even US Presidential elections in 2000 and 2004 saw widespread voting controversies with many states rejecting the electronic recording of votes.

But there have been allegations of rigging even in the time of paper ballots. In 1990, there were widespread reports of rigging in Meham (Haryana). In 1972, West Bengal’s CPM alleged that polls were fraudulent; in Punjab 1992, the Opposition boycotted elections and in J&K 1987, the Muslim United Front alleged mass rigging.

So should we go back to the era of ballot papers? That would indeed be a retrogressive step. Would we abandon computers in banks because of occasional security lapses?

The jury, it seems, is still out on EVMs as there is no conclusive data, nor academic consensus on the issue. The EC can perhaps address the issue by taking the help of independent security analysts to run tests on the EVM software. That, combined with a transparent, extensive pre-poll testing of the machines in the presence of all stakeholders, should help sort out things.

If at all EVMs fall short of being 100 per cent foolproof, there is a case for improving them, not eliminating them. For doing away with them totally would be like throwing away the baby with the bath water. Or going back to the barter system just because of the lingering threat of counterfeit currency!

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based journalist

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