HACKABLE: There are persistent doubts that EVM machines could be manipulated by the ruling party. Worse still — in a country where ATM machines are stolen, are digital financial transactions safe?
BY RAJAN NARAYAN
The results are out but there are increasing question being raised on whether the ruling party has rigged them and doubts over not only the integrity of EVM machines but the independence of the EC. Will the Modi government try to undermine the Election Commission as it is attempted to undermine the judiciary?
In Rajasthan an Election Commission official incharge of a polling booth was caught red handed directing voters to press the button only with the BJP symbol. The police posted ignored the protest of the other polling agent present. After persistent protest and for calls to the Election Commissioner in Delhi the polling officer was removed and replaced. It will be recalled that earlier the Chief Electoral Officer of Mizoram, the smallest state to go to the polls, was removed by the Election Commissioner. The perception is that the BJP seems to have subverted the electoral process all together.
It started with suspicion in the appointment of CBI officers. The BJP appointed a joint director even though there was a director in office with a fixed tenure of two years as decided earlier by the Supreme Court. Then overnight both CBI Director Verma and the Special Director appointed by the BJP, Asthana, were suspended. A case is going on the Supreme Court on the validity of the suspension and on what caused Prime Minister Modi to suspend the director and executive director of the CBI at 3 am in the morning.
Writing even while waiting for the results of the elections to five states of Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana, what worries us are the doubts being expressed over the entire electoral process. Never before has there been so much suspicion about the manner in which the elections can be rigged with or without the collusion of the Election Commission.
The Election Commission has had a very good reputation. It has addressed itself to the fresh problems that have risen often. When doubts were expressed on whether EVM machines can be manipulated, the Election Commission introduced VVPAT (Voter verified paper audit trail) machines which print a paper trail which carried the name of the voter but is not physically available to the polling agent, let alone the voter. The paper trail is not a receipt to prove that you have voted for a particular party. It would of course be dangerous to have a receipt as political parties might take action against those who have voted for their enemy. But as of now the paper trail is only a sample survey and not hundred percent of the votes cast. It is in fact less than 5% of the votes polled in any elections.
There was a practice which sometime you see in the old Hindi films which was called booth capturing. This did not mean catching ghosts but to fill the ballot box with votes of only one candidate. The process was simple. The goondas of the candidate would enter the polling centre. They would take all the voters’ slips before the EVM era and stamp the slip bearing their candidate symbol. They would stuff the ballot box with only their party symbol. Forget polling officials, even the police posted were afraid of the goons.
Strangely, there are still reports of not booth capturing but of EVM machines in which results are sealed being hijacked by one political party or the other.
Perhaps it is necessary to explain how the voting process has changed. Earlier the presiding officer gave the voter a slip that had the symbols of all the political parties. The voter selected the party and put the slip in the ballot box. Since most of the voters were illiterate they went by the symbol and not by the name of the candidate.
With the introduction of EVM machines you have an electronic box that displays the names and symbols of the various candidates contesting the elections. The voter goes to the booth where the EVM machine is and presses the button against the candidate he wishes to vote for. To make doubly sure that the machine has not been rigged there is the VVPAT that prints the paper trail or slip that displays the name of the person who voted and the party he chose for 30 seconds. The paper is behind a glass and drops into the machine so the voter can only view it. The Election Commission says this system is tamper-proof. But what do you do if in the process of transporting the EVM machines to the strong room somebody steals it?
A case has been reported of an EVM machine lying on the road side in Rajasthan. There are lakhs of EVM machines in the Lok Sabha election with one machine having a capacity of having not more than 2,000 votes. Therefore the possibility that a particular machine may go missing can be quite high. This can happen at any stage. The presiding officer may be a bhakt of a particular party and might just hijack an EVM machine because he thinks that the voters who used it are supporters of the opposition.
The phasing of elections has made the hijacking of EVMs even easier. Earlier the elections were held on a particular day and the counting was scheduled for the next day as it still happens in a small state like Goa. But in large states like UP and MP the polling is now held in stages, which means that only some district will be taken up for polling on the first day and the process could run into four or five or more rounds of voting.
For instance in the recently concluded election the polling process in MP started on November 27 and ended on December 4, 2018. The polling in Rajasthan started on December 2 and ended on December 6, 2018. Similarly, there was a two phase polling in Chhattisgarh which was a Naxal affected area. Similarly Andhra and Telangana also has polling spread over a week.
This is because the amount of corruption and even violence has increased in elections. There is not enough police force within the State to ensure that there are no clashes or booth capturing. Which is why elections are spread over a period of several weeks. The present phase of polling to six states started on November 27 but results were announced only on December 11, 2018. The logic being that if the results of Rajasthan where polling had completed much earlier was announced it might affect the voting of other states.
All the EVMs are stored in a strong box which is normally a room in a school or in Goa the Bal Bhavan or the Menezes Braganza hall. The EVMs are counted in the presence of agents of all the parties and kept inside the strong room. The strong rooms are not guarded by the state police but by Central Reserve Police. In addition that are CCTV cameras which focus on both the outside and the inside of the so-called strong room to ensure that there is no hera pheri. Since the present election was considered the semifinal leading up to the Parliamentary elections, all political parties have been keeping a 24×7 vigil even on cold nights outside the strong rooms.
It is reported that the Congress has raised doubts over the security of EVMs after the LED screens outside a strong room went blank for 90 minutes. It was attributed to a power failure but in India power failures can be created. And surely they should have a generator backup as power failure is so common. There are also been reports that a few EVMs reached district HQ days after the polling when they should have reached the same night.
There have been repeated demands for the scrapping of EVMs and the return to good old ballot paper. There have been many claims about how EVMs can be rigged. The Election Commission has never permitted an independent examination of the EVMs to find out if they are foolproof. In an age and time when even giant companies like Facebook and Google are not able to protect data it is difficult to believe that EVMs cannot be hacked. The only problem is that in a country of India’s size, if EVMs are scrapped, it will take weeks or months for results to be announced in Parliamentary elections. In the Opinion Poll which was held in 1967 in Goa, it took five days for the counting to be over and for results to be announced. Even in the US, many states opts for manual voting instead of automatic or electronic booth. So the problem will be not the results but whether the results represent the truth.
When an incumbent party is suspected of manipulating election results, there are bound to be fears of large scale tampering or manipulation of EVMs. Opposition parties have been taking stringent measures to prevent ‘fixing’ of results particularly in the light of fears that if the BJP wins the next Parliamentary elections there might be no further elections and India like North Korea or China might become a one-party dictatorship.