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In Spite Of Recent Allegations, Why EVMs Are Our Best Bet At Fair Elections

Posted by Shree Nidhi in Politics, Staff Picks
May 10, 2017

Aristotle in his treatise on politics suggests that radicalism may be a luxury of stability. He goes on to say, “The habit of lightly changing the laws is an evil; and when the advantage of change is small, some defects whether in law or in the ruler had better be met with philosophic toleration. The citizen will gain less by the change than he will lose by acquiring the habit of disobedience.”

With a brazen disregard for the common man’s wishes, thoughts and well-being, politicians like Kejriwal are questioning the trustworthiness of EVMs and the integrity of the Election Commission. It is important that we critically analyse and find answers to the possibility of EVM tampering.

Since independence, 16 Lok Sabha elections have taken place. India’s electoral regulations are also changing with the times. The Election Commission has been trying hard to maintain its autonomy to conduct free and fair elections in spite of the difficulties posed by politicians and their lackeys. EVMs manufactured in 1990 were first used in polls in 1998. The dream of the Election Commission to conduct free and fair elections has been successful owing to the use of EVMs.

History Of EVMs

Parliament of India added a new article 61(A) in the Representation of People’s Act (1951) and approved the use of EVMs in Indian elections. The government formed an Electoral Reforms Committee comprising of the representatives from all the major political parties. The Electoral Reforms Committee then formed an expert committee to critically analyse the pros and cons of EVMs. Based on the recommendation of the expert committee, the Electoral Reforms Committee agreed to the use of EVMs in the elections. Additional securities were added to EVMs based in 2006 following the recommendations of the second expert committee. In the 2014 general elections, the Election Commission used a staggering 3.26 million EVMs.

EVM Technology

Indian EVMs have two separate units. A control unit and a ballot unit. A five-meter length cable works as a communication device between the two units. The primary unit is the control unit which stores all data in its memory, including the votes. After BEL and ECIL engineers develop the program necessary for driving the EVMs, the program is translated to a machine level code. The software is burned onto the micro-controller chip in Japan and imported after due processing of the quality and security features. Once a voter presses the button adjacent to the symbol of his favourite candidate, the LED glows and the vote is stored in the control unit.

Each EVM has the capacity to store 3840 votes and each ballot unit has provision for the name and symbols of 16 candidates. If more than 16 candidates contest in a constituency, the EVMs could be connected in parallel and a provision can be created to support 64 candidates. As the EVMs run on a 6V alkaline battery, they can be conveniently used in the constituencies where there is no electricity. Simply put, India’s EVMs are just calculators.

Election Commission staff members seal the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) (Image Credit: Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Possibilities Of EVM Tampering

After the EVMs were introduced, all political parties have questioned the trustworthiness of EVMs and the rationale behind their use. A large number of non-government, pro-democracy and pro-transparency activists have criticised the secrecy maintained by the Election Commission in the production of EVMs. In 2010, a Hyderabad-based techie Hari Prasad obtained an EVM from an anonymous source. He joined hands with Alex Halderman, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and a computer security expert. They published a research article on the security features of Indian EVMs.

Hari Prasad was arrested by the Mumbai police for being in possession of a stolen EVM. The court, instead of penalising Hari Prasad, granted him bail and advised the Election Commission to address the queries raised by him to prove the trustworthiness of EVMs. As Hari Prasad openly challenged the Election Commission over whether EVMs could be tampered with, it becomes necessary to look at his research in detail.

His research article accuses the Election Commission of the following:

  •  The 1990 and 2006 expert committees, instead of looking at the source code, based its report on the presentations done by the BEL and ECIL engineers and the members of the committee are not experts in the field of computer security. Any corrupt engineer could manipulate and code a backdoor in the source code and the committee would never realise it. It is not right to declare EVMs tamper proof without looking at the source code.
  • As the micro-controllers are produced abroad, the possibility of foreign intelligence agencies meddling with the EVMs cannot be ruled out.
  • The circuit used in the control unit is very simple. Any person with a basic knowledge of electrical networks and circuits can manipulate it.
  • After the elections, the votes stored on the EEPROMs (Electrically Erasable Programmable Read-only Memory) can be erased and new votes could be stored.
  • There are no encryption protocols followed in storing the votes.

To prove the above accusations, Hari Prasad and the others came up with many devices capable of manipulating the output from the EVMs. They installed a micro Bluetooth receiver in the control unit and varied the output by an application on their mobile phones. They fixed a pen-sized device called clip-on to the EEPROM and erased the stored votes and added new votes. Till today, Hari Prasad’s research is the only comprehensive study on the Indian EVMs.

Is It Possible To Tamper EVMs?

Even though the points raised by Hari Prasad are technically sound, the major glitch in their approach is that tampering by this approach requires physical access to EVMs. The person thinking of tampering the EVMs should have access to the EVMs. The Election Commission had answered Hari Prasad’s questions in 2010. Firstly, the members of the expert committee were not illiterates, they were researchers in India’s premier science and technological institutes. Prof. S Sampath had attended Stanford University, Padma Bhushan award winner Prof. P. V. Indiresan had a PhD in electrical engineering from Birmingham University, Dr C Rao Kasarabada was the director of Electronics Research Centre, Trivandrum.

All of them were experts in the field of electrical engineering and therefore questioning their technical expertise without proof is not acceptable. The software is sent to the manufacturer only after BEL and ECIL engineers translate it to machine level language. It is impossible to obtain the source code from the machine code by reverse engineering. Without access to the source code, re-programming the micro-controller is also impossible. Appropriate security checks are in place at every stage of manufacturing, right from the export of the software to the import of the micro-controller. In addition, EVMs produced after 2006 have additional features like time and date stamping.

In addition to the above-mentioned technical security features, the Election Commission has set up a number of administrative and procedural securities in place. Before every election, a first level checking (FLC) of EVMs is carried out by BEL and ECIL engineers in front of the representatives from all the political parties. Faulty machines found from FLC are not used in the elections. After the FLC, EVMS are randomly distributed to constituencies. This is called ‘randomisation‘.

Following this, the second round of randomisation is carried out to distribute EVMs to polling booths. Both randomisations are carried out with approval from representatives of all the political parties and the EVMs are stored in a “strong room”, which is kept under guard 24×7. Few days prior to the election, the EVMs are prepared by BEL engineers in a large hall. No electronic devices are allowed inside this hall and there are appropriate security checks in place.

Front case of the ballot unit is removed and the candidates are allowed to check for any tampering. Before the elections, a mock poll is conducted by casting 1000 votes. The EVMs are sealed only after the candidates or their representative are satisfied. The results of the mock elections are printed out, given to the candidates and their approval is taken after they are satisfied with the performance of the EVMs.

On the day of the election, another mock election is carried out by casting 100 votes and after the candidates are satisfied, the EVMs are sealed. Whenever possible, video recordings of mock polls are made. After the elections, the sealed EVMs are kept in the “strong room” and the room is sealed. The candidate can also put his seal on the lock and keep watch. On the day of counting, each candidate is given an opportunity to check the seals and the counting is carried out in front of everyone.

A miscreant intending to tamper EVMs, without raising any suspicion, has to bribe the election and security personnel, gain access, erase and add votes favouring his candidate. Hypothetically speaking, even when all election and security personnel are corrupt, it is very difficult to tamper due to the sheer number of EVMs used. The Election Commission used 3.26 million EVMs in the 2014 general election.

As randomisations are carried out, it is impossible to allot a rigged machine to a particular constituency.

To manipulate the software, the engineers of BEL and ECIL have to be corrupt. Even if the software is manipulated, the EVMs have to pass the tests carried out by the technical committee of the Election Commission. All those who accuse the Election Commission overlook three facts:

  • Not all bureaucrats are corrupt. That will, no doubt, be discounted.
  • It takes enormous monetary and technical resources to tamper an EVM. That too will be brushed aside — political parties have so much unaccounted money that cost will not deter them.
  • Even if the machines are corrupted, it is impossible to keep that secret; any tampering is detectable and the engineers will be caught.

It is this last fact that will keep engineers honest, no matter what the temptation. As President Kennedy remarked, it is not the severity of punishment but its certainty that keeps people honest. By 2019, all EVMs will have voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) technology, wherein the vote gets printed on a ballot paper in the machine for the voter to verify. In case of any discrepancy, the paper trail can be used to recount the votes.

It is not my wish to prove that EVMs are tamper-proof or infallible. No machine is perfect; every machine can be bugged. That is not the issue. The real issue is whether such a change is sustainable. It is indeed necessary to add more security features and bring transparency in the production of EVMs. If one looks at the elections before 1999, fake voters, tonnes of ballot papers and counting of votes were major difficulties.

All of these have been overcome with the use of EVMs and it has increased the confidence of voters in the work of the Election Commission. Huge amounts of trees had to be cut down in order to produce ballot paper before the EVMs. The impact of this on the environment is incomparable. The tax money paid by the common citizen instead of being wasted is being used for other developmental purposes.

Some self-proclaimed intellectuals are pointing out the discontinuation of the use of EVMs in USA and Britain and asking if Indian EVMs are more technologically sound than the EVMs produced by the developed countries. According to them, India should blindly follow USA and Britain. According to them, only the West understands and has the necessary skill-set to produce technologies, not Indian scientists and engineers.

These people lack self-esteem and blindly believe that the technology that comes from the West is superior in comparison to indigenous technology. The British might have left India, but even today the intellectual slaves they created, cast aspersions on everything Indian.

It is disheartening to see politicians like Mayawati and Kejriwal questioning the EVMs and the Election Commission. All political parties are the same when it comes to EVMs. Today BJP might be saying that EVMs are tamper-proof, but in 2010, a member of the BJP, GVL Narasimha Rao published a book called “Democracy At Risk”, criticising the Election Commission and EVMs. Till this sort of opportunistic politics ends, India will not become a mature democracy.

The ex-chief election commissioner, TN Seshan said in an interview, “What is wrong with Indian politics are the three ‘Ms’ – money, muscle-power and ministers.” Likewise, the Election Commission, by keeping the politicians on a leash, is striving hard to protect democracy. And we have to do our part by educating ourselves about the electoral process, the absence of which would lead to the loss of confidence in democracy itself.

Image Credit: Hindustan Times via Getty Images