Monday, April 1, 2013

At Last, EVMs will have A Paper Trail

A Surya Prakash 
(Distinguished Fellow, VIF)

After standing on false prestige and even becoming vindictive against those who suspected the integrity of electronic voting machines, the Election Commission has finally acceded to the demand that the machines must issue a paper receipt to voters. The Commission’s decision – made known to the Supreme Court recently in response to the plea by Dr.Subramanian Swamy, President, Janata Party that EVMs be scrapped – is a major victory for all those who were campaigning against electronic voting machines because they lacked transparency.

Dr. Swamy had argued that EVMs must be scrapped because they are not tamper-proof. They could be retained only if there was transparency via a paper trail, so that every voter knew that his vote had been registered correctly. Even Japan, which started the process of electronic voting had now reverted to paper ballots. Many other countries had also fallen back on paper ballots for the same reason. The commission, which had stubbornly resisted the demand for either scrapping EVMs or introducing a paper trail, began to display some reasonableness in the matter after Dr. Swamy moved the Supreme Court and a Bench comprising Justices P. Sathasivam and Ranjan Gogoi declared that it would hear the matter on a priority basis, so that the proceedings concluded before the next parliamentary election.

The Commission signaled its readiness to consider the plea when it told the court last September that it was contemplating “foolproof methods” to ensure that EVMs were not misused or tampered and that it was consulting technical experts and political parties in this regard. Finally, some weeks ago, the Commission informed the court that it was willing to incorporate the paper trail in order to remove doubts about the integrity of EVMs. The Commission told the court that it had done a trial of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) in EVMs in 180 polling stations in various states. This system could be incorporated after it received the opinion of an expert committee that is examining the issue. The Commission proposes to use the paper trail first in some by-elections and later incorporate the same in general elections.

It has already asked EVM manufacturers to fine tune the paper trail system. The debate on the integrity of the EVMs was started three years ago when a group of public spirited NRIs headed by Mr. Satya Dosapati of New Jersey organized workshops in Delhi and Chennai under the aegis of ‘Save Indian Democracy’ and invited national and international experts to speak about the vulnerability of these machines to hacking and fraud. Among them was Mr. Till Jaeger, a lawyer who got the Federal Constitutional Court in Germany to ban the use of these machines in that country; Mr. Rop Gonggrijp, a computer hacker from Netherlands who demonstrated on live TV how the machine could be hacked and Mr. Alex Halderman, Professor of Computer Science, University of Michigan, USA, who is an authority on electronic voting security. The most prominent Indian expert at these workshops was Mr. Hari Prasad of Hyderabad, who spoke about the ease with which EVMs could be tampered with and on how, irrespective of voters’ preferences, the machine could be pre-programmed to produce a result.

The argument against EVMs is that they can be tampered with at the manufacturing stage or at places where they are stored in state capitals. The experts say Indian EVMs are similar to the ones that were used in the Netherlands, Germany or Ireland, before they were rejected in those countries. A standard method of rigging an election is to introduce a Trojan in the display section of the control unit, which will give a “fixed” result on the EVM screen after polling. The biggest drawback of these machines is that since the vote count happens inside the machine, there is no way in which the result can be cross-checked. Given the extent of corruption and fraud in various facets of governance in India, it would be foolish to discount the possibility of EVM manipulation by political parties in power or by compliant election authorities.

Mr. Hari Prasad demonstrated the vulnerability of these machines to the Election Commission as well, some months prior to these workshops. However, such was the Commission’s fear of the truth that it abruptly stopped Mr. Hari Prasad and his colleagues midway through their demonstration. Later, the Commission became very vindictive and even launched criminal prosecution against Mr. Hari Prasad and had him arrested in August, 2010 for demonstrating the EVM’s vulnerability to fraud on what the police allege was a stolen machine. In fact, the alleged theft of the machine itself constituted an indictment of the Commission. It showed how EVMs could be taken out of the Commission’s custody and thereafter, even tampered with. The Commission learnt of the so-called theft only after Mr. Hari Prasad demonstrated on TV how the machine could be hacked.

Thus, the Election Commission resorted to punitive action against a whistle-blower, whose only intention was to protect the sanctity of the electoral process in the world’s largest democracy. As a public body which has the responsibility of superintendence, direction and control of elections, the Commission must function in a people-friendly and transparent manner. It must first convince us that those who man it are democrats who are willing to see and listen. It must also convince us that it has no political axe to grind, although all the Commissioners are appointed by the government of the day through an obviously partisan process. As the former Chief Justice Mr. M.N. Venkatachalaiah often says “democracy is not just about statistics” (there are over 700 million voters in India, so many lakh polling booths etc) The members of the Commission must demonstrate their deep and abiding commitment to its ideals of democracy.

Given the fact that the Commission was headed at one time by Mr. Navin Chawla – a man indicted by the Shah Commission for conduct unbecoming of a public servant - during the Emergency, the attitude of the Election Commission against Mr. Hari Prasad was no surprise. When persons like Mr. Chawla are appointed Election Commissioners, it is no surprise to see the Commission running away from the truth on such an important question which concerned the integrity of the electoral process and, as a consequence, of the Election Commission itself ? In any case, now that Mr. Chawla has retired, the Commission must redeem itself in the public eye. Since it has, in principle, accepted the argument that a paper trail is a must if EVMs are to be used, it must gracefully withdraw the criminal proceedings against Mr. Hari Prasad.

It must also speed up the technical clearances needed to give voters a paper receipt when they vote in the next Lok Sabha election. 2014 is a high stakes parliamentary election and the Election Commission is duty bound to ensure the sanctity of the results of that poll. The Commission must act with efficiency and grace.

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