EVMs: Why doubts persist, and won’t go away

EVMs: Why doubts persist, and won’t go away

The EC’s claim that EVMs are infallible and cannot be compromised, without proving that doubts are unfounded, gives rise to more suspicion

A L I ChouguleUpdated: Thursday, April 04, 2024, 03:44 PM IST
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Electronic Voting Machine | File Photo

While announcing the schedule for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections on March 16, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Rajiv Kumar defended the reliability and integrity of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), which are specially designed, manufactured and used for elections as per the election procedure and rules. The EVM consists of ballot unit, control unit, and the latter added Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT). The VVPAT is an important component of the EVM that can be used to quell doubts over free and fair conduct of elections in India. But the election commission (EC), it seems, will not entertain any doubt over the reliability of EVMs, which in its opinion, make the poll process fairer, better, and faster without relying on VVPAT slips.

Replying to a question about reliability of the EVMs, the CEC vouched for the fairness and integrity of the machine, though most of the electorate do not. He shared an Urdu couplet for the benefit of EVM doubters, which he had himself penned on how the machines would have themselves responded to the allegations of those who do not trust EVMs. Roughly translated, the machine’s (CEC’s) poetic response was: “It is not right to blame us every time for unfulfilled desires. While you fail to prove yourself, you say it is the fault of the EVM”. Dismissing allegations of EVM malfeasance and blaming “unfulfilled desires” does not make EVMs reliable. Nor does it absolve the ECI of its responsibility to conduct elections in a transparent manner.

Those demanding free and fair elections – the democratic voices of voters, the political parties and EVM experts – have often expressed their reservations unequivocally about the reliability of EMVs for lack of transparency. The EC’s claim that EVMs are infallible and cannot be compromised without proving that doubts are unfounded gives rise to more suspicion. It is like telling people not to ask questions on Niti Aayog’s highly contentious numbers on poverty reduction in India – that only 11% of the country’s population is below the poverty line and 25 crore people have escaped poverty in the last nine years. In absence of transparency, how does one believe the EC’s claim that the entire election process, including EVMs and the electronic and technological processes, are error-free?

The EC says there is no scope for misrepresentation of electorate’s choice and misgivings about EVMs are baseless. But doubts persist for various reasons. For instance, a deep-dive into two sets of data shared by the EC – voter turnout/votes polled data on EVMs and the votes counted on EVMs – in the 2019 general election by The Quint had found serious discrepancies in the data in 373 constituencies which went to polls in the first four phases of the last general election. By deriding the democratic voices and mocking political parties and EVM experts, while claiming that the EVMs have made the poll process fairer and better, the CEC and EC have not addressed the concerns raised by many people over free and fair conduct of elections. If after every election, suspicions are raised and aspersions are cast, it is the EC’s job to dispel the trust deficit over the poll process.

The CEC’s comment that only those who lose elections raise questions over reliability of EVMs implies two things. One, it is a tirade of a sore loser and need not be taken seriously because blaming EVM is just an alibi for lack efforts on their part to win elections. Two, elections are meant only for political parties and candidates. Both assumptions are false: in a democracy, sovereignty vests with the citizens and elections are the tools for the citizens to transfer this sovereignty to his/her chosen representative. To do so, elections and voting system must adhere to democratic principles. Not only the election process should be free and fair, it must also be seen to be free and fair.

It is equally important for the voting process to be transparent in a manner that the voters can be satisfied that their vote is correctly recorded and counted. The voting and counting systems must ensure that the voter should have the knowledge that his/her vote is cast as intended, recorded as cast, and counted as recorded. The EC’s vetting of the EVMs does not inspire confidence for two reasons. One, the EC has not done enough to allay suspicions that the machine can be compromised or influenced. Two, credibility of the EC in the eyes of the voters and political Opposition has hit the lows for various reasons. One of them is the EC’s biasness in enforcing the model code of conduct fairly and squarely for every one – political parties and candidates. Another reason is the totally partisan way in which the CEC and election commissioners are being selected.

There is no evidence to say that EVMs are compromised or can be misused to “manufactures” votes in favour of a particular party. Just because a machine can be compromised does also not mean it is indeed compromised. But the absence of evidence, EVM experts say, also cannot be said to be the evidence of absence. Since one party has total domination over the election process through control of institutions and resources, it is obvious that questions will be raised and aspersions cast over the voting process. The major concerns of voters and Opposition parties about the EVMs is whether their vote is recorded as cast. This concern can be addressed through a simple solution – present voters a proof of their vote (VVPAT slip) outside the black box which they can verify and drop it into a box, which becomes the second source of truth of the election process, after the EVM.

In simple words, the voters will still cast their vote by pressing a button on the EVM but will be given a physical copy of the printed VVPAT slip, which after verifying to make sure that their vote is recorded as they cast, they drop the VVPAT slip into a box. Thus, there will be two places where the vote is recorded – the EVM and the VVPAT slip box. Both should be counted and matched before results are declared. This was also the suggestion proposed by the INDIA alliance in its December 2023 meeting. This is also the plea of a petition in the Supreme Court on which the court issued notice to the EC on April 1. With physical counting of VVPAT slips, declaration of results could be delayed. But when the election is held over seven phases spread over one and half months, a delay of a day in declaring results should not be an issue.

The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule

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