Electronic voting machines (EVMs) deserve multi-party control. Here’s why

By Dr. Syed Zafar Mahmood, President, ZakatIndia.org

To conduct polling for the parliamentary election and those for the provincial assemblies, the election commission of India (ECI) procures EVMs from two public sector undertakings, namely Bharat Electronics Ltd, Bangalore and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd, Hyderabad. Both of these public sector undertakings are controlled by the central government and neither by the ECI nor through a multi-party control mechanism.

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2.   Procuring the EVMs for elections of municipal corporations and other local bodies is the discretion of the state election commissioners. It’s a subject matter of investigation as to from where they buy these machines. Also, the voters need to know up to what extent the prescribed mechanism of the upkeep and handling of the EVMs are tamper-proof.

EVM components

3.   In India, the voting machines have two parts. On the balloting unit, the voters press the button and the control unit gives the command to the polling officer who sits in the polling booth. These components of the EVM are inter-connected and also, through a fifteen feet long cable, the control unit’s button rests with the polling officer. One EVM can record maximum 3,840 votes.

4.   Before the EVMs came into vogue, a ballot paper was given to each voter after which nobody other than the voter had any control on the casting of the votes. The manual ballot has, in the recent past, been replaced by a system where the polling officer presses the ballot button and only then the balloting unit is open for casting the vote. After a voter presses a button on this unit, the red LED indicator should light up and a whistle sound should come from the machine. But if that doesn’t happen then millions of the illiterate and rural voters would not realize that the vote has not been cast.

Polling Officer’s discretion

5.   Simultaneously, after the button is pressed, the EVM is again locked automatically for any further voting. Pressing any button again will not be counted as a vote. This system has originally been devised to ensure that no registered voter can cast multiple votes. Yet, avoidable discretion does now lie with the polling officer who has the EVM control trigger in hand. This surely casts aspersions on high values of total democratic transparency.

6.  As the EVM unit can accommodate only a given maximum number of votes, it enables a candidate to easily know about the number of persons who have voted for him through that particular EVM. That is susceptible to vitiating the winner’s mind towards those areas where he was not the voters’ choice.

No multi-party technical pre-election check of EVMs

7.  In response to a query the Election Commission of India has recently clarified that during the production of EVMs in the factory, functional testing is done by the production group as per the laid down quality plan and performance test procedures. Samples of EVMs from production batches are periodically checked for functionality by a Quality Assurance Group, which is an independent unit within the manufacturing firms.

8.  However, nowhere it is mentioned in the ECI’s response that technical representatives of various political parties are ever able to check the EVMs in any manner.

RTI queries

9.  Against this backdrop and in the context of the upcoming elections for the three Municipal Corporations Delhi due in April 2017 the ZFI has raised the following RTI queries with the Delhi state election commissioner: (i) The name & address of the suppliers from whom the Delhi State Election Commission has bought the electronic voting machines (EVMs) which will be used for conducting the MCD Election 2017. (ii) The number of such machines. (iii) The date on which such machines were bought and brought to Delhi. (iv) The mode of transportation of such machines. (v) The location of safe custody of these machines. (vi) The arrangements for safe custody of such machines. (vii) How many security personnel are deployed every 24 hours to guard these machines. (viii) After arrival in the custody of Delhi State Election Commission on which dates these machines were subjected to technical checking and verification of their authenticity and by whom. (ix) If yes, then please provide copies of these reports. (x) What is the professional expertise of the persons who did such checking? (xi) From where did they receive the required training and when. And, (xii) on which date the upcoming MCD election candidates and their technically equipped representatives will be offered to inspect these machines.

EVM tampering possible

10.  The possibility of the EVMs being tampered with cannot be denied. Their safe custody under the EC guards does give a sense of satisfaction. Yet there are so many slips between the cup and the lip.

11.   It is satisfying to some extent that the operating program of EVM’s control unit is engraved permanently in silicon by the manufacturers. This program supposedly cannot be changed once the unit is manufactured, even by the manufacturer. But, from beginning to the end, the manufacturers too are voters, and, effectively at the beck and call of the political party in power.

Technically equip ECI’s internal checking team

12.  So the questions arise as to what is the internal mechanism available with the election commission to check and satisfy itself that the EVMs bought by it are not pre-rigged?  From where does the commission’s staff deployed for this purpose get training to carry out such checking?  In the polling booths if the polling officer does not press the button after a person has voted, how do the millions of illiterate rural voters make sure that their vote has been cast?

EVM’s pitfalls noted in the USA

13. In a news item “Voting Machines Put U.S. Democracy at Risk” the CNN News Anchor Lou Dobbs reported that during the 2004 presidential election, one voting machine in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio reportedly added nearly 3,900 additional votes to George Bush’s total. Officials caught the machine’s error because only 638 voters had cast ballots at that precinct.

14. A report from the US Election Science Institute found that in Cuyahoga County the electronic voting machines’ four sources of vote totals – individual ballots, paper trail summary, election archives and memory cards – didn’t match up with each other. The totals were all different, and the report concluded that relying on the current system for Cuyahoga County’s more than 1.3 million people should be viewed as “a calculated risk.” Lou Dobbs asked, are we really willing to risk our democracy?

Michigan scientists’ hacking of Indian EVM

15.  Julian Siddle of BBC had reported that scientists at the University of Michigan developed a technique to hack into Indian electronic voting machines. After connecting a home-made device to a machine, the researchers were able to change results by sending text messages from a mobile phone, as confirmed by Professor J Alex Halderman, who led the project. “Our lookalike display board intercepts the vote totals that the machine is trying to display and replaces them with dishonest totals – basically whatever the bad guy wants to show up at the end of the election”, said the US professor. In addition, they added a small microprocessor which they say can change the votes stored in the machine between the election and the vote-counting session. The researchers added that the paper and wax seals put on the EVMs could be easily faked.

Princeton findings

16.   In the US, there are four main manufacturers of electronic voting systems, none of which has been demonstrated to be more secure than the others. A Princeton University study found that hackers can easily tamper with electronic voting machines by installing a virus to disable machines and change the vote totals.

17.   Princeton researchers also found that “malicious software” running on a single voting machine can steal votes with little risk of detection and that anyone with access can install the software. The study also suggests these machines are susceptible to viruses.

Government Accountability Office finding

18.  A 2005 Government Accountability Office report on electronic voting confirmed the worst fears of watchdog groups and election officials. The report said, “There is evidence that some of these concerns have been realized and have caused problems with recent elections, resulting in the loss and miscount of votes.”

Newsweek report   

19.  Newsweek also reported that “it requires only a few minutes of pre-election access to a Diebold EVM to open the machine and insert a PC card that, if it contained malicious code, could reprogram the machine to give control to the violator. The machine could go dead on Election Day or throw votes to the wrong candidate. Worse, it’s even possible for such ballot-tampering software to trick authorized technicians into thinking that everything is working fine, an illusion you couldn’t pull off with pre-electronic systems.” Consequently, many US states have taken action to implement paper trails.

Introduce multi-party EVM control

20.  Section 61A of the Indian Representation of People Act states “the giving and recording of votes by voting machines in such manner as may be prescribed, may be adopted….”. The manner so prescribed needs to be examined by technical representatives of the political parties with a view to strengthen the system and make it foolproof as well as fully transparent. The companies manufacturing EVM machines and the checking and upkeep of these machines should be controlled jointly through a multi-party mechanism.