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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 18, May 4, 2024

Supreme Court Needs to Relook at the EVM-VVPAT Judgement | Sandeep Pandey

Saturday 4 May 2024, by Sandeep Pandey


The Supreme Court in its judgement has backed the system of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) that is used in India for conducting elections and simply refused to consider the option of going back to ballot paper. The inherent argument is that technology has improved a number of things like precluding the possibility of bogus voting, eliminating human errors, reduction in time in counting of votes, etc. and if anything, technology should be further improved like using bar codes on paper slips, etc.

The Supreme Court says that rising voting percentage reflect voters’ faith in the EVM. This is a vacuous argument. Common people in this country have to pay bribes, including in Courts to get the next date of hearing, to get things done in the government-administrative system. Does it mean that they have faith in this system? People have no choice, if they don’t want to he harassed. Similarly, without providing the alternative of ballot paper, when the election commission, government, non-government agencies, political parties are all urging people to go out and vote, if people are forced to vote through EVMs it doesn’t mean that they have faith in the voting system. It would do the Supreme Court judges good if they were to just move around among common people, especially in rural areas, and get some ground level opinion, directly or indirectly. They’ll be surprised how much people don’t trust the machine. Have they not seen visuals of people going inside the booth and smashing the EVMs on ground during the ongoing elections? The disenchantment is widespread.

Banarsi, resident of Village Chandpur Faridpur in Mehmoodabad tehsil of District Sitapur says that in last election he pressed the election symbol of Elephant on EVM but saw Lotus inside the glass of VVPAT and therefore doesn’t have any faith in EVM. Similarly, retired IAS officer from U.P. Anees Ansari, aligned with the Congress Party now, says he saw Lotus in the VVPAT even though he had pressed the EVM button on another symbol. Yet, Election Commission says so far it has received 25 complaints of mismatch and all were found to be false. If the complaint is found to be false then the voter is liable to be penalized. The present system does not allow Banarsi or Anees Ansari any evidence to prove their claim. Hence the possible penal action acts as a deterrence against any voter contemplating filing a complaint.

The EVM system has three components - Control Unit, Ballot Unit and VVPAT, all of which have microcontrollers. As they are randomly allotted to constituencies much before the elections and then kept in strong rooms, any possibility of tampering before the finalization of candidates is ruled out. An engineer from the manufacturers, ECIL or BEL, comes with a laptop computer roughly within 15 days before the polls and loads the final list of symbols through a Symbol Loading Unit onto the VVPAT. The names and symbols of candidates are manually pasted on the BU. The BU and CU are candidate and symbol agnostic, which implies that the one time programme loaded in them at the time of manufacture doesn’t know the position of candidate or symbol beforehand. However, some mischief is possible, because of human intervention necessary, just before the polling with the VVPAT when symbols are being loaded in a particular order there. It is possible to introduce some malafide content in the bitmap file which is loaded from the SLU onto the VVPAT. The judges of SC have completely overlooked this possibility. To understand this one needs to see the demonstration of a contraption designed by Rahul Mehta, an IIT Delhi and US trained engineer, who shows how opposition party votes and can converted into symbols of party preferred to win. That is how Rahul Mehta has programmed his machine. Now his design may not be the same as being used by ECI but any attempts to procure the design of EVM system being used by ECI, even by paying the cost, have proved to be futile. The ECI will simply not allow anybody to look at the source code loaded in the machine and the SC concurs with this stand.

The saving grace of the SC judgement is to allow SLUs also to be in strong rooms for 45 days, just like the BU, CU and VVPAT, after the elections and allowing the candidates getting the second and third highest votes to examine the software of the EVMs, at their own cost, if they doubt the result. This will certainly act as a deterrence against possible mischievous manipulation in the software.

Final argument against removal of EVMs that is made is about the cost incurred so far. This is also specious, A large investment has gone into manufacturing the EVMs and VVPATs. But countries like South Africa which made nuclear weapons and later found them useless, dismantled them. Nuclear weapons certainly costed more than EVMs.

Given the widespread suspicion over use of EVMs, it is best that we go back to the ballot papers under strict gaze of cameras. When the Supreme Court judge, hearing petition on EVMs, said that we do not want to even think about ballot papers, he probably did not have this in mind. In the Chandigarh Mayoral elections fudging of ballot papers was caught on the camera. Had the same thing been done through the EVM-VVPAT it would not have been caught as what happens inside the machine is hidden from everybody, including the unsuspecting officials overseeing the polls. The returning officer and observer are unaware of what goes on inside the machine and most administrative officers, in ignorance, support the use of EVMs.

(Author: Sandeep Pandey, General Secretary, Socialist Party (India))

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