Monday, June 28, 2010

Electronic Voting Machines: Tamperable?

Electronic Voting Machines: Tamperable?
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 26.06.2010

On July 31, S. Yaqoob Quraishi will take over as the Chief Election Commissioner.

Slots in diplomacy and governorships are already being identified as the retiring chief election commissioner Navin Chawla’s parking lots. But at the Election Commission Chawla has set for himself a busy agenda almost until the end of his term.

For example, on July 27 elections will be held in the 12 assembly seats which had fallen vacant after the Telangana Rashtra Samithi members resigned from the House agitating for a separate Telangana.

This apparently simple election is not without its complications. For instance, elections in two constituencies cannot be held because of a Supreme Court stay. Reason? Two of the candidates claimed they had won the elections. According to a SC judgment if a petitioner challenges election results, a re-election is possible only after the High Court clears the issue.

True to form, TRS leader K. Chandrasekhar Rao claims the elections to these two seats are being held up because of pressure from the Congress.

Quraishi’s first challenge will be elections to the Bihar Assembly due in October-November. Who knows, Tamil Nadu too may call for early elections if K. Karunanidhi is persuaded that, in addition to other calculations, the International Tamil Jamboree has moved Tamil voters in his favour.

A simmering controversy Quraishi will have to contend with is a sustained, low level, campaign by interested parties on the reliability (or otherwise) of the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs).

Allegation of booth capturing and poll rigging, particularly in states like Bihar had brought into disrepute the old paper ballot.

These allegations made is essential for the Election Commission to explore new technologies. As always in modern Indian political history, Kerala first showed the way when EVMs were tried in 50 polling elections in a constituency in Kerala in 1982.

Subsequently Representation of People Act of 1951 was amended, permitting EVMs since 1989 but not before an Expert Committee, under Prof. P. V. Indiresan was constituted to evaluate these machines.

The General Elections of 2004 and 2009 were conducted entirely on EVMs. Following some critical observations, the Expert Committee suggested some improvements in the machines. These improvements were introduced in 2006.

The controversy has acquired some momentum because many European countries have turned their backs on EVMs i.e. they employed EVMs and then discontinued the practice in favour of good old paper ballots.

Recently, electronic voting has been banned in Ireland, Holland and Germany. Italy and France are not using them either. In the US, systems change from state to state.

In Germany the Supreme Court found EVMs violative of the election law which demands absolute transparency – The objection being that what happens inside a “chip” or a “machine” is not visible to the naked eye.

The lobby placing a question mark on EVMs is citing the European experience. Also, since Bharat Electronics (Ministry of Defence) and the Electronic Corporation of India Ltd. (Dept. of Atomic Energy) are the only manufacturers of EVMs, a case is being made out that official agencies can be persuaded to favour the government in power.

It is being argued that if the machines could leave “paper trail” to be handed to the voter, the system will become beyond reproach. After all, millions of credit card transactions around the world would not be possible without both, electronic registration of the transaction and a paper receipt for the customer.

The counter argument is that in a country where votes are bought and sold, a receipt for having cast a vote will be that much easier to encash.

That is fine, but remember paper also gets jammed obstructing rotation of the paper roll. One such obstruction will hold up the election in a given constituency. Many such hold ups can disrupt the election schedule.

The leadership to those opposing EVMs are politicians like Chandrababu Naidu and Subramanyam Swamy. Also, individuals like former Chief secretary of Delhi, Omesh Sehgal have approached the Election Commission with complaints against EVMs on the grounds that they were “tamperable”.

Psephologist G.V. Narasimha Rao, having gone woefully wrong in his recent electoral predictions, has joined the anti EVM bandwagon.

Another lobby opposing EVMs are undiluted commercial interests.

In 1980, one Mohammad Haneefa of Tamil Nadu approached the Election Commission with an Electronic Voting Machine he had invented. He filed a writ petition before the Madras High Court when the Election Commission seemed to favour Public sector companies. Even though the High Court dismissed the petition, he persisted with this communications with the EC challenging the efficacy of the Public sector manufactured EVMs.

Ultimately in 2007 the EC invited him to make a presentation before the Chief election Officer in Bangalore to establish flaws in the EVMs in use. According to the Election Commission sources “he failed to demonstrate any tamperability”.

After the 2009 elections, Subramaniyam Swami, G.V.L. Narsimha Rao, and one Hari Prasad of Net India (a would be electronic machine manufacturer) asked the Election Commission to let them open an EVM. They were given the permission. When they started taking measurements and noting details of EVM components, the Election Commission stopped them. Why? They may use the data for “reverse engineering”. Strange reason! Quraishi will have to handle the controversy.

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