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Points judges don’t get about EVM

Updated on: 22 April,2024 06:52 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Ajaz Ashraf |

Concerns about opacity, discrepancies in polling data that tend to go unexplained and vulnerability of machines to manipulation give us reason to be suspicious about the existing electronic voting system

Points judges don’t get about EVM

Madurai Collector M S Sangeetha at a strong room where EVMs and VVPATs are kept after the first phase of Lok Sabha elections, in Thoothukudi, on April 20. Pic/PTI

Ajaz AshrafThe Supreme Court’s two-member bench, led by Justice Sanjiv Khanna, did not take into account the perceptions of three classes of citizens during the arguments over the electronic voting machine (EVM) last week. These three perceptions are of the voter, the journalist, and the expert.

In this column dated March 4, I described the deep distrust voters have of the EVM. A fortnight ago, journalist Supriya Sharma travelled in west Uttar Pradesh and reported on the incredible scale of voters’ misgivings about the EVM. Sharma quotes one Saba Khan as saying she would not vote unless the elections are held by ballot paper.

Khan’s stance contradicts the remark Khanna made last week—the faith of the people in the EVM is reflected in the high voter turnout in elections. This remark is specious, for I, too, think the EVM is prone to manipulation, but I will certainly cast my vote.

Citizens doubt the EVM because it is opaque: they wonder whether votes have been registered as cast, and counted as registered. What happens inside the EVM is invisible to them, unlike in voting by ballot, which voters would stamp and drop in a box. There was no possibility of ballots being switched from one party to another inside the box, which could, though, be looted and stuffed. But this process was visible, was often reported in the media, and led to ordering of repolls.

The second perception arises from an article by journalist Poonam Agarwal, who accessed Election Commission of India data for 373 constituencies, with 220 of them counting more votes than polled. Five constituencies had a whopping difference of more than 9,000 votes. It could be speculated that the ECI made public the data before collating complete details. But scandalously, 153 constituencies counted votes less than polled. Where did the votes disappear?

An ECI official told the court that Agarwal’s story was untrue. But she had repeatedly asked the ECI to explain the discrepancies. Not only did it stonewall her, even the data disappeared from the ECI website. It will be a travesty of justice to take the ECI official’s denial at face value. In 2017, journalist Dhirendra Jha analysed the voting pattern in the election to Uttar Pradesh’s urban bodies. The BJP won 14 out of 16 municipal corporations, but fared poorly in the elections held for nagar panchayats and nagar palikas. EVMs were used only for corporation elections! On such coincidences the suspicion about the EVM grows.

The Supreme Court, in recent years, has been palpably disinterested in concerns over EVMs. Trinamool leader Mahua Moitra, the Association for Democratic Reforms, and Common Cause petitioned the apex court for a probe into the discrepancies between votes polled and counted. Their petitions were last heard in the Supreme Court in February 2020. The ADR’s petition on the EVM, in which the judgment was reserved last week, was filed in March 2023; its application for urgent hearing was rejected. The final arguments were completed days before the first phase of polling, making it impossible to bring about changes to the electronic voting system.

Again, in 2019, politician Chandrababu Naidu pleaded before the Supreme Court that 50 per cent of EVMs and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail, or VVPAT, slips should be matched in each Assembly constituency. The ECI submitted it could not augment its infrastructure so close to the elections for undertaking such an exercise. Last week was just the occasion for the court to quiz the ECI as to why it has not expanded their infrastructure to speed up counting of VVPAT slips.

The third perception is of Kannan Gopinathan, who worked as Very Large-Scale Integration design engineer before he joined the IAS; he quit the service to participate in social movements. He wrote, in 2021, an article describing how EVMs became vulnerable to manipulation once these were attached to VVPAT machines in all constituencies in 2019. The EVM was insulated from tampering when it was a standalone machine, not connected to the internet or external devices, Gopinathan wrote.

This scenario changed with the VVPAT machine because now, after the last date for withdrawal of candidature, laptops are deployed to prepare the VVPAT sheet, detailing the names of candidates, their sequence on the Ballot Unit, and their symbols. The VVPAT sheet is uploaded to a Symbol Loading Unit—and then to the VVPAT machine. Indeed, the VVPAT’s introduction provides a backdoor entry for manipulating the EVM. This is facilitated by a design flaw, Gopinathan said, for it is not the Ballot Unit, as in the past, but the VVPAT machine that messages the Control Unit about the vote cast. Votes are tallied from the Control Unit.

Khanna asked whether there exists evidence regarding the manipulation of EVMs. Gopinathan, to me, drew an analogy—suppose someone tells you the window of your house is broken, would you first find out whether a theft has taken place before repairing it? We keep our entrance doors shut to protect our house from intruders. It pays to be suspicious, a point Khanna missed when he twice told ADR’s lawyer Prashant Bhushan that he was being “over suspicious” about the EVM.

The writer is a senior journalist.
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