Vol. XLIII No. 24 June 16, 2019
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EVM: Struggle for Secrecy, Transparency and Verifiability should Continue

Nilotpal Basu

After the protracted elections came to a grinding halt on May 19, the nation waited with bated breath for the results. 23rd May was the D day. However, the post poll interregnum was not quiet. The unprecedented acrimony and the divisiveness had marked these elections with most of the exit polls and the corresponding rollercoaster in the share market led to another round of heated argument in the television studios. Since the campaign was hotly contested, this was not surprising. With most of the exit polls giving it to the BJP, the debate revolved around the past records and the fallibility of such an exercise.

But, perhaps the most significant debate was on the reliability of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) acting in tandem with Voter Verifier Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT). In a way this debate was a spillover of the running battle between the opposition parties and the Election Commission of India(ECI). In the past, quite a few of the opposition parties had in fact demanded that the electoral system reverted back to paper ballots. Subsequently, most of them came around to the view that EVM records be matched with VVPAT count; not content with the insistence of the Election Commission on the infallibility of the machines, 21 opposition parties approached the Supreme Court.

The apex court after two rounds of consideration accepted the proposal that matching the EVM record with VVPAT count was a comparatively more reliable way to address the concern. The court directed the EC to match such records for five booths in every assembly segment. However, the court left it unstated how the randomisation would actually work. Since there was no clarity, the ‘combined opposition’ discussed with the EC to do this matching at the very beginning of the counting process. This demand stood the ground of reason for the principle of randomisation. If a part was corrupted the entire stock needed to be checked! The EC, however, flatly refused the demand! There is no final authentic statement from the EC about the exercise as yet.

THE GENESIS OF MACHINES USED

The use of EVMs was developed and tested by the PSUs, Electronic Corporation of India Limited(ECIL) and Bharat Electronics Limited(BEL) in the 1990s. The use of these machines was introduced between 1998-2001. The EVMs had been now used in all general and state assembly elections since 2004. However, there has been doubt over the reliability of these machines. There has been series of meetings between the political parties and the ECI with many rounds of technical demonstrations where the Commission has consistently insisted that the chips or micro controllers are absolutely tamper free; the design, manufacture, the constituency wise and polling centre wise distribution, place them beyond the scope of any manipulation.

The EC had also insisted that unlike some other countries, Indian EVMs are beyond online access and each micro controller is custom designed and has a unique identity, devoid of any reprogrammable software environment. But, the fact that voters themselves couldn’t view the recording of their choice formed the background for VVPAT coming into use in 2014. In a phased manner, now in 100 per cent of the polling booths, the system operates with EVMs and VVPATs acting in conjunction. However, while this addresses the concern of the voter for self verification about the recording of one’s vote with one’s own eyes, the question mark remains; because the final matching of the two is limited to an insignificant fraction of the total polling exercise.

It is in this backdrop the EC’s unilateral refusal of the opposition parties demand has further compounded the trust deficit.

RISING SUSPICION

Though, doubts have been sounded over the years, not merely by the present opposition, voice over the reliability of this system was sharply articulated even by the topmost BJP leader L K Advani, who had spearheaded the campaign for reverting back to paper ballots. The basic arguments on the two sides of the debate have been technology use and cost effectiveness on the one hand, while transparency, verifiability and secrecy on the other.

Why it is so vital to ensure that there is no discrepancy in the voting process, between casting, recording and counting of the votes? Democracy provides legitimacy to the government based on people’s will. People’s will is expressed through the votes based on the principle of secret ballot. Not only the votes need to be recorded and counted correctly; the recording and counting process must be accessible to and verifiable by the lager public. This makes a discrepancy of even one vote unacceptable. This is not a utopian demand, but universally accepted by democracies across the world. It is the importance of this crucial issue that prompted 66 former officers of IAS and IPS, people with high integrity to talk of the ‘obdurate’ conduct of the ECI and their questionable response on the issue of EVMs.

THREE CRUCIAL QUESTIONS

The first of these pertains to the issue of mismatch between the number of EVMs manufactured by ECIL and BEL and those received by ECI. The discrepancy was brought out by a petition based on authenticated RTI replies. RTI documents brought out glaring discrepancies in procurement, storage and deployment, apart from grave financial irregularities. For example, ECI claims that it has received 10,05,662 EVMs from BEL between 1989-90 and 2014-15. The ECI also stated that it received 10,46,644 EVMs from ECIL between 1989-90 and 2016-17. On the other hand, BEL recorded that it supplied 19,69,932 EVMs to ECI between the years 1989-90. Similarly, ECIL stated that it had supplied 19,44,596 EVMs. The mismatch between the figures supplied by the two manufacturers and that received by the ECI is apparent.

Where are the excess machines? The query continues to go begging! Consider this question in conjunction with the large number of unregulated movements of vehicles with EVMs and VVPATs from polling centres to the store rooms widely reported in the social and main stream media during the election.

The second question pertains to mismatches between votes polled and votes counted by two web portals, ‘Quint’ and ‘Newsclik’. By trying to meticulously collate the data put out by the ECI website, their calculations are highly disturbing. Stung by the questions, the ECI came out with a disclaimer through a press note. The ECI explained that the voting figures put out earlier (and in certain instances, removed) were of a provisional nature, not actual cumulative figures based on those submitted by individual presiding officers across the country. The question, however, is why this statutory disclaimer was not put out at the outset? The controversy on these ‘phantom votes’; the discrepancy between polling and counting figures, is ECI’s own making! The failure of the ECI to clarify issues has certainly compounded the disquiet in public mind.

The final crucial issue pertains to the computer chip or micro controllers embedded in the BEL/ECIL manufactured EVMs and VVPATs used in the current election. BEL has stated that its chips are manufactured by NXP, a multimillion dollar US Corporation. ECIL, however, refused to disclose the manufacturer for its micro controller.

Both had always maintained that micro controllers used in EVMs are ‘One Time Programmable’ (OTP). However, NXP’s website indicates that features of micro controllers produced by the company have three kinds of memory, SRAM, FLASH and EEPROM. Experts on the subject confirm that a computer chip which includes FLASH memory cannot be called OTP. The ECI has not yet decided on the September 2018 recommendations of the Central Information Commission (CIC) to get a competent authority to examine whether detailed information about the source code used in the EVMs can be placed in the public domain to ensure public trust in the EVM based voting system; but nothing has happened on the ground.

This discussion can go on with information available through RTI queries. But the fact remains, that the trust in the system depends vitally on the verifiability of recording.

IN LIEU OF A CONCLUSION

The trust of the people must be irrefutably addressed. What is striking about the Lok Sabha elections 2019 is the big question mark over the role of the ECI itself.

Our Constitution makers had envisaged a robust and independent role for the ECI by providing sweeping powers to the body under Article 324 for ensuring free and fair poll and a level playing field for all contesting political parties.

Many reforms and legislations enacted under that provision have been adopted to ensure this independent and bipartisan character in keeping with the changing times and growing requirements of democratic standards.

However, many changes during the last five years initiated by the government have vitiated the atmosphere. The first and foremost is the anonymous and theoretically limitless corporate funding to political parties through electoral bonds. Corporate cronyism embedded in this new system has brought out staggering results. Centre for Media Study (CMS) report shows that Rs 60,000 crores was spent in 2019 Lok Sabha elections of which the BJP has spent about 45 per cent. Does this represent a level playing field?

Equally, the conduct of the ECI on the enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) during the pendency of the election has raised sharp questions. A large number of petitions made by various opposition parties, including the CPI (M), were left unanswered. These pertained to the flouting of not just the MCC, but specific directions of the ECI itself by the prime minster. These pertained to electoral appeals with communal undertones and those claiming the ownership of the military feat of the Indian armed forces. These obviously helped the BJP to project his personae as ‘supreme protector’ of the nation and its people! While the ECI promptly responded to complaints against ‘other’ leaders, it remained extraordinarily reticent on Modi-Shah. It is only when the Supreme Court was seized with this question of non response and came down heavily on ECI’s plea of inadequacy of powers; the ECI was forced to respond, issuing clean chits to Modi-Shah. Therefore, on all questions, ranging from the duo’s speeches to unlicensed broadcast by the NaMo TV and PM’s address on strike against live satellites, ECI was seen to be providing justification for the government.

Therefore, the debate over the credibility of the EVM-VVPAT driven electoral system is not a question in isolation. While there can be no definitive conclusion for abandoning; but there is enough ground to strive for a foolproof solution for verifiability of the electoral system.   Therefore, without belittling the need for technology, use and the cost factor, the current EVM- VVPAT system in vogue without further improvements cannot bring this debate to rest in our quest for a free and fair election.