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Electronic Voting Machines : Fool Proof Or Not

Syllabus: GS-II (Election)

The elections in the largest democracy in the world are no easy affair. To ensure free and fair elections through the years since independence several changes have been brought about in the way the process is conducted. One of the biggest improvements has been the introduction of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM). In the general election of 2014, with an electorate of over 863 million people, more than a million EVMs were used. The EVMs have replaced paper ballots in most elections (all direct elections). However, they have faced scrutiny due to a variety of issues or safety concerns. These are quite critical as any compromise in the fairness of the elections would amount to subversion of democracy.

What is the design and structure of Electronic Voting Machines?

Electronic Voting Machines

The EVM consists of two units :

  1. Ballot Unit
  2. Control Unit

These two units are connected to each other via a cable. The ballot unit allows the voter to vote for a desired candidate. The control unit controls the ballot units, stores voting counts and displays the results on 7 segment LED displays.

As in seen in the above picture, the ballot unit consists of a button panel and a display panel. The display panel shows the symbol and name of the party whose candidate is running for election in that particular constituency. The button panel has arrows pointing to the adjacent display area to show which button corresponds to which candidate or party.

From the above image, it is visible that a maximum of sixteen candidates can be voted for from one ballot box. If the number exceeds this then more ballot boxes are added in parallel. The maximum number of units that can be connected in parallel are 4, thus bringing the total number of candidates that can be included on the machines as 64 in any particular polling booth. If the number exceeds 64, then the conventional method of paper ballots is used. This is seldom the case. The Election Commission has additional measures to ensure that no frivolous applications are made and thus the number of candidates often stays below this level. Also, remember that after the Supreme Court judgement, one of the options has to be NOTA i.e. none of the above. An EVM can record a maximum of  3840 votes for 64 candidates.

To ensure that there is no stoppage due to erratic or no power supply, the EVMs are powered by an alkaline battery of 6V. The controller in the EVMs is not reprogrammable and thus cannot be changed even by the manufacturer.

What is the process to use the Electronic voting machines?

During the election, the control unit lies with the polling officer for that booth. The ballot unit is placed in a designated area that is enclosed to ensure the privacy of the voter.The Control Unit provides the officer-in-charge with a “Ballot” marked button to proceed to the next voter when the previous one has cast his or her vote. It is not possible to vote more than once by pressing the button repeatedly. As soon as a particular button on the ballot unit is pressed, the vote is recorded for that particular candidate and the machine gets locked. Even if one presses that button further or any other button, no further vote will be recorded. This way the EVMs ensure the principle of “one person, one vote”. The machine becomes ‘active’ only when the Ballot button is pressed by the officer in charge.

The polling officer will press the ‘Close’ button at the end of the polling process at the booth. The balloting unit is also disconnected from the control unit. Now, the EVM cannot accept any votes. The polling agents are allowed to know the number of votes recorded to create a check for discrepancy at the time of counting.

To count, there is a ‘Result’ button on the EVM. This Result button can only be pressed after the Close button. Also, it is hidden under a seal which is only broken at the counting centre of the area.

What are the problems with the Electronic voting machines?

They are allegedly prone to tampering by electronic or digital means. There have been instances where no matter which button is pressed the vote was being cast for one candidate only (the most recent one in Bhind). Internationally too, electronic voting was introduced in many countries. But serious doubts were soon raised about the security, accuracy, reliability and verifiability of electronic elections. In October 2006, the Netherlands banned the use of EVMs. In 2009, the Republic of 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, holding that transparency is a constitutional right but efficiency is not a constitutionally protected value.

In India too, in the recent elections at both the state and local government levels, there have been several accusations of EVM tampering. Though the Election commission of India held a workshop to demonstrate the security features the apprehensions remain with recent incidents. If an independent person has access to the hardware then it can be tampered with.

What can be done to secure Electronic Voting Machine use and make them tamper-proof?
  1. Use of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail machines or VVPATs. These machines produce a paper ballot printing the logo and name of the candidate/party that the voter has voted for on the EVM. The paper is visible to the voter so that he or she can verify the correctness of the vote that they have cast. It is not available to the public but accumulates in a storage area within the VVPAT. At the time of counting, the VVPAT results can be tallied with EVM results to ensure a paper audit of the entire process.Supreme Court has ruled that the Election Commission would use Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPATs) linked to EVMs in a phased manner. The full implementation should be achieved by 2019.
  2. Upgradation of older EVMs. The new M3 EVMs will have a Public Key Interface (PKI)-based mutual authentication between various EVM units for identifying a genuine unit, of the authorised manufacturer, in the field to ensure that only genuine EVMs can be used for communication within the network. This will ensure enhanced security within the network.
  3. Use of different manufacturers to ensure that the designs of the silicon chips are not leaked and there is no compromise on the part of security at the manufacturer-end.

Moreover, other measures such as the inclusion of Totaliser machines too must be undertaken. This ensures that poll count by booth is not known to the parties. Thus, this prevents any form of discrimination in the post-election period.

Conclusion

Free and fair elections form the cornerstone of democracy. Though the EVMs have brought in a certain measure of transparency ever since their introduction in 1999 however, they have stirred up a hornets’ nest in the digital age. The questions regarding their efficacy and security must be settled by using appropriate measures such as VVPATs and new generation M3 EVMs. Also, the voter must be educated on the functioning of the EVMs to ensure that he or she too is not misled. Democracy in the age of technology needs secure and tamper-free EVMs.

 

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