Mainstream, VOL LV No 14 New Delhi March 25, 2017
Was there tampering with EVMs (Electronic Voting Machines) in UP Elections?
Saturday 25 March 2017, by
Kumari Mayawati, the chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party, has alleged that the prime reason for the landslide victory of the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh elections is due to tampering with the EVMs. “How come the BJP managed to win in Muslim bastions across the State? Did the EVMs not accept votes cast for other parties?”—Mayawati wondered. Though one is unsure whether there was tampering of the machines or not, she has a valid point in her allegations.
There are no exceptional reasons for Muslims to move into the BJP fold at this juncture. The BJP had not even offered a single seat to Muslims to contest the elections and yet the party has won many seats from the Muslim-dominated constit-uencies. The Congress has supported the BSP leader’s demand for a probe into the EVMs along with the Samajwadi Party, Laloo Prasad Yadav and others. “Whether her doubts are founded or unfounded, it is a matter to be addressed by the Election Commission in order to erase all doubts about the integrity, honesty and impartiality of the electoral process which is intrinsic to uphold the democratic traditions of our country,” Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala had said.1
Other Complaints: Delhi, Assam and Maharastra
Even before Mayawati’s allegation AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal had alleged that Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) were being tampered with to favour the BJP in the election after an inspection of four such machines at the Delhi Cantonment area before the local elections. He had alleged that whatever button was pressed on the machines, the light against the BJP symbol had lit up. “Large scale EVM tampering? Yes (yesterday), during inspection of EVMs in Del Cant (Delhi Cantonment), in four machines. Whatever button you pressed, light against BJP lit,” he had said in a tweet.2
An electronic voting machine had created a stir in Jorhat, Assam too. Every time a button was pressed, the vote went in favour of the BJP. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had alleged the tampering of the EVMs. He had said: “The Election Commission had conducted trial polling in Jorhat where the light on the EVM against the BJP symbol was blinking irrespective of other buttons being pressed.” Assam Chief Election Officer Vijayendra, however, said it was not a case of tampering. “That particular machine was a defective piece. We have changed it,” he asserted. “It’s a very serious issue. We have already filed a written complaint to the State EC about the EVM tampering. We will now take up the issue at the national level,” Gogoi had told reporters.3
Senior Congress leader in Maharashtra Sudhakar Gangane, who heads the State-level coordination committee of former legislators, has written to President Pranab Mukherjee that electronic voting machines (EVMs) were manipulated during the recent local government elections there. Gangane said the BJP was the main beneficiary of the malpractices. “In most of the municipal corporations, prediction given by the BJP leaders before the polling has come out absolutely true,” he said, adding: “Many an independent candidate got zero votes in spite of voting himself.”4 As a protest hundreds had participated in a foot march organised by several candidates from various political parties, who had lost in the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) polls, blaming their loss on the Electronic Voting Machines. The foot march was described by the organisers as a ‘funeral procession of EVMs’, where the participants carried out a symbolic cremation of props representing EVMs.5 When queried about the allegations, State Election Commissioner J.S. Saharia had told mediapersons: “It’s not new for losing candidates to allege that EVM machines were tampered with. However, despite dozens of elections that have been conducted using them, no evidence of rigging has been found. These are tamper-proof machines.”6
Response of the Election Commission
The Election Commission has rejected BSP supremo Mayawati’s claim as of the others in the past that the electronic voting machines were rigged in the Uttar Pradesh elections and said her demand for a repoll using ballot papers was legally untenable.
The Commission also listed a series of mechanical and electronic measures it had taken to prevent tampering of the EVMs. It said the judiciary had endorsed the use of the machines in successive elections. “The prescribed administrative process has been fully complied with in the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand elections in the presence of representatives of political parties and candidates. The Commission has, therefore, not found any merit in your allegations and the prayers made in your letter under reply are not legally tenable,” it told Mayawati.
India’s EVMs are Vulnerable to Fraud
A study by Hari K. Prasad, J. Alex Halderman and Rop Gonggrijp found India’s EVMs were vulnerable to fraud though the Election Commission of India has spoken of India’s EVMs as “infallible” and “perfect”. “Electronic Voting Machines used around the world have been shown to suffer from serious security problems,” they had opined. According to them, “India’s machines had never been subjected to credible independent research. The Election Commission’s two expert committee reports were rather minimal and were performed by scientists with no apparent electronic voting security credentials. These studies were conducted without access to the machines’ source code and relied on presentations and site visits with the manufacturers.”
In contrast, the group had performed its own experiments with a real machine and had demonstrated working attacks. The study had found that an attacker with brief access to EVMs can tamper with votes and potentially change election outcomes. They had demonstrated two attacks that involved physically tampering with the EVMs’ hardware. First, they had shown how dishonest election insiders or other criminals could alter election results by replacing parts of the machines with malicious look-alike parts. Such attacks could be accomplished without the involvement of any local poll official. Second, they showed how attackers could use portable hardware devices to change the vote-records stored in the machines. This attack could be carried out by local election officials without being detected by the national authorities or the EVM manufacturers. Safeguards against these attacks are either absent or woefully inadequate in the country.7
It would be easy, according to them, to programme a dishonest EVM or EVM component so that the manipulation is only performed after voting has been going on for a long time, or if the total number of votes is in hundreds. That way, simple mock polls will show the proper results, but all the final election results will be manipulated.
The fact that the election authorities have not allowed public scrutiny of the security of EVMs doesn’t make them secure. “There are more than 1.4 million EVMs in India, and criminal attackers would likely have less difficulty getting access to a machine than we did. Unlike actual criminals, we are working to inform the public about the security problems we found.”8
What does this mean for a functioning democracy? Electronic machines are liable to be manipulated. Whether they have been manipulated or not is to be found out through verification. If they are, then there would be the larger questions of democracy and what its implications would be for the people.
Can the Problems with EVMs be Fixed?
It is held that the entire class of voting systems to which these EVMs belong has inherent problems that stem from a lack of transparency. They force voters to trust software and hardware without proper means of verification. The Election Commission may like to speak of “checks and balances”, with various procedures believed to make fraud harder. Drastically improving procedures might make some kinds of fraud more difficult, but cannot eliminate the risks. For EVMs to be used, the people of India would need to continue to place trust in an election technology that they cannot observe.
Limitations of Technology
India is marching into a technological era with passion for technology. In the process we can remain blind to its limitations. Electronic voting machines have replaced decidedly imperfect but observable paper ballots with insecure and completely non-auditable technology.
The Netherlands is a modern democracy. When it was discovered that these machines had severe security problems and that there was inadequate transparency, the machines were abolished and paper ballots were reintroduced there. While countries should adapt to latest new inventions, there is also the need to take a second look and examine whether what seemed like a good idea ten years ago is still a good idea today.
All parties are there to acquire power and enhance their power. To attain that power it is customary to adopt all kinds of devices. One cannot rule out without proper examination the allegation of Mayawati, backed by other Opposition leaders, that the electronic machines were tampered with. In the elections in UP several field journalists through field assessments had estimated that the BJP tally would not cross 180-200. Several journalists stationed in respective constituencies had reported the possible wins and the estimate and concluded that the BJP would not cross 200. Soni Sori got only 16,000 votes in spite of a huge tribal support for her in Bastar, in spite of her sole access even to the interior of the Naxal-dominated areas for campaigning, and hundreds of NGOs campaigning on ground. Instead BJP’s Dinesh Kashyap won with a huge majority without any support of tribals in a tribal-dominated Bastar!
In many constituencies the BJP, while canvassing, had witnessed half-crowds, surely much less then those at the meetings of Akhilesh-Rahul. Both the former Chief Minister of Assam and the present Chief Minister of Delhi have testified to the errors of the machines. The Commission may say that they are defective machines. How is one to know the number of defective machines?
Besides, more than other parties the BJP is known to make use of all kinds of devices, both moral and immoral, to win elections. It would be worthwhile to check the allegation by organising through paper ballots re-election in at last one constituency where the Opposition believes that there has been rigging. This can be done with support from the Election Commission and the Supreme Court. That would send the right message.
Dr Ambrose Pinto SJ is the Principal, St. Aloysius Degree College, Bangalore.