On March 11, 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly elections decisively. The BJP and its allies won 325 out of the 403 assembly seats.
On the same day, when it became clear that the BJP was set to form the government with a huge majority, the Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati addressed a press conference. She said, “Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand election results are very shocking. They are very hard to swallow by anyone… This suggests that voting machines did not accept votes cast in favour of parties other than the BJP, or that votes cast for other parties were also registered as BJP’s…” After this allegation, the opposition has periodically targeted the BJP for allegedly tampering with the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) in order to win different elections in the country.
Similar allegations surfaced again in the by-elections which took place in different parts of the country on May 28. The opposition has accused the BJP of tampering with the EVMs in the bypolls which took place in Noorpur and Kairana on Monday. The Opposition also complained of EVMs malfunctioning in the Palghar by polls which took place in Maharashtra on the same day.
This begs the question – Can EVMs really be tampered? To understand this, we first need to understand when and why EVMs were set up and their arrival in India.
Electronic Voting Machines were introduced for the first time in the 1998 general elections and the state elections held in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and NCT of Delhi in the same year, in some of the constituencies.
On its website, the Election Commission lists down three reasons for using EVMs – they save costs (of paper, printing, transportation, storage and distribution), quicker counting and absence of invalid votes.
The Election Commission website also claims that it is impossible for anyone to tamper EVMs in such a way that the vote goes to only a single candidate or a political party.
In a research paper by academics Zuheir Desai and Alexander Lee titled “Technology, Choice, and Fragmentation: The Political Effects Electronic Voting in India”, they write, “EVMs are associated with dramatic declines in the incidence of invalid votes, and corresponding increases in vote for minor candidates. There is ambiguous evidence for EVMs decreasing turnout, no evidence for increases in voter error or fraud, and no evidence that machines with an auditable paper trail perform differently from other EVMs.” The research was based on data from three Lok Sabha elections – 1998, 1999 and 2014.
According to an article in The Hindu, there is no possibility of EVMs being tampered to influence the election outcome. In the article, it is pointed out that the EVM has a pre-programmed set of instructions which only selected devices can read through a wired connection. The only way to tamper with the EVMs is if the single-chip unit which the EVM possesses is dismantled altogether. However, in newer machines, it is not possible to do that at all and in others, it can be detected. So, in no way can the EVMs be tampered with, the author argues.
Every electronic voting machine consists of two units:
1. Control Unit
2. Balloting Unit
The control unit is with the polling officer. They press the ballot button, making it possible for the voter to cast their vote by pressing the blue button on the balloting unit.
However, there have been allegations that it is possible to change the internal circuit of the EVM. The Election Commission did not deny the possibility of that happening but did point out that doing so was akin to ‘changing the whole device itself, after which it is no longer the same device’.
But the Election Commission pointed out that there was absolutely no way that the ‘motherboard’ or the ‘internal circuit’ of the EVM could be tampered with since they are subjected to a first level checking in front of the representatives of the political parties.
And according to the Election Commission, after the first-level checking is done, it is safely secured in rooms with 24X7 armed security.
During the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections held in December, Congress candidate from the Porbandar assembly constituency had claimed that three of the EVM machines were connected to some sort of a bluetooth device. He had said, “A device named ‘ECO’ shows up when you switch on Bluetooth on mobile phones.”
Chief Electoral Officer of Karnataka Sanjiv Kumar had said in March, “…Neither do they have any provision for Bluetooth or a platform to sync with wi-fi or internet. The chip or machine cannot be infected with any virus too. An apex scientific committee screen these machines before they are sent out of the manufacturing units…”
In The Hindu article, the author had rubbished such allegations and had compared it to him setting an open bluetooth connection on his device titled ‘Narendra Modi’s personal phone’. He had said that wouldn’t imply that anyone would get access to ‘Narendra Modi’s personal phone’.
These are the arguments put forward by the Election Commission and the Opposition. However, one thing that needs to be pointed out since the opposition is majorly accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party of tampering with EVMs. The parent company of which Narendra Modi as the CM of Gujarat had allegedly favoured has a similar ownership pattern with the enterprise which is in the business of supplying microchips to Indian EVMs. The Indian exchequer suffered a loss of nearly ₹20,000 crores when the BJP government in Gujarat under Narendra Modi’s leadership had favoured GeoGlobal Resources.
GeoGlobal Resources is a controversial company which was the technical partner of the Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation in extracting gas from the Krishna Godavari basin during Narendra Modi’s tenure as Gujarat’s chief minister. The Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation had borrowed ₹19,720 crore from 13 public sector banks from 2008 to 2015 to fund the drilling of the basin. All this is based on a Comptroller and Auditor General of India report. Congress leader Jairam Ramesh had written that this was worthy of being investigated by a Supreme Court judge.
GeoGlobal Resources is a subsidiary of Key Capital Corp. While Microchip Inc, USA is the enterprise which is in the business of supplying microchips to Indian EVMs.
Janta Ka Reporter in a report pointed out how the ownership patterns of Microchip Inc, USA and Key Corp are very similar. Enterprises such as Vanguard Group Inc, Blackrock Inc, Price Trowe Associates INC/MD, Barrow Hanley Mewhinney and Strauss LLC, State Street Corp and JPMorganChase & Co have stakes in both Microchip Inc, USA and Key Corp.
In the same article in The Hindu, the author had pointed out that the ‘ownership matter’ is something to look into’.
However, there is no evidence yet which suggests that Microchip Inc, USA is involved in tampering with microchips in a way such that it benefits a particular political party.
It is absolutely justified for the Opposition to question the EVMs in a democracy and even ask for a return to the ballot paper. Even European countries such as the Netherlands have actually reverted back to using ballot papers instead of EVMs since it was believed to not be foolproof. However, it must be pointed out that there is not sufficient evidence yet which may suggest that there has been a large-enough scale of fraud in EVM voting to change the electoral outcome in any election.