(Electronic Voting Machines or EVMs have suddenly become the centre of controversy once again after the recent assembly elections in 5 states. Leaders like Mayawati and Arvind Kejriwal have alleged tampering of EVMs to be the reason for their poor performance. BJP, the union government and Election Commission have rubbished the charges. Interestingly, BJP’s spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao had written a book on EVMs in 2010, questioning their accuracy. It has become suddenly relevant after the charges of opposition leaders. The write up below is an edited portion of that book- India Samvad )
Electronic voting machines, like all other machines, are prone to errors and malfunctioning. No machine ever made anywhere in the world is infallible. They can never be.
For instance, the electronic voting system installed in India's parliament, the country's most powerful institution in the country, has failed on a number of occasions and the members of parliament have had difficulty in registering their votes on the system.
In the crucial confidence vote to decide the fate of the Manmohan Singh government in September 2008, the whole nation witnessed on live television how as many as 54 elected members of the lower house of parliament failed to register their votes electronically.
Utter chaos and confusion prevailed and finally, these members of parliament were allowed to vote manually.
If the country's lawmakers, 543 in number, have difficulty in voting on an electronic system installed in India's parliament, isn't it commonsensical to ask if India's 714 million strong electorates, many of whom can neither read nor write – have any difficulty voting on electronic voting machines?
We tend to assume that the voting system is working fine because we have never delved into the subject deeply.
The Big Lie:
If one lies, one should lie big- Adolf Hitler
In his 1925 autobiography titled Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler, the authoritarian German leader, referred to what he called the "Big Lie" technique. Hitler said: "A big lie always has a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously".
The Election Commission of India has applied the Big Lie technique to perfection to lay to rest serious concerns regarding EVMs in the wake of 2009 general elections. The Commission has done this by repeatedly saying that the "ECI-EVMs are fully tamper-proof ".
With such unconvincing and irrational arguments, the Election Commission gives an inescapable impression that it has a vested interest in perpetuating the electronic voting system about which most parties today have serious concerns.
(Also read: http://www.indiasamvad.co.in/special-stories/evm-debate-when-advani-pointed-fingers-at-the-device--20720 )
Admittedly, this worked for the Election Commission as the vast masses of the country media and elites included – as Hitler theorised, have fallen victim to the colossal untruth fabricated by the Election Commission.
"Insider" Fraud a Concern:
Personal accounts from well-placed sources and experts say that those demanding these vast sums are "insiders". Who are these insiders? Unlike in the traditional ballot system where only the election officials were the "insiders", electronic voting machine regime has spawned a long chain of insiders, all of whom are outside the ambit and control of the Election Commission of India, the constitutional body vested with the authority to conduct free and fair polls. There is every possibility that some of these "insiders" are involved in murky activities in fixing elections.
This is not a hallucination. The whole world except us in India – is alive to the dangers of insider fraud in elections, mostly by insiders in the electronic voting machine industry.
The most important among the "insiders" are the manufacturers of India's electronic voting machines namely, Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd. (ECIL). Both are wholly government-owned central public sector undertakings under the administrative control of the government of India.
An average Indian voter does not understand how an electronic voting machine works in recording and tallying votes. Most political parties and candidates do not have much understanding of these voting machines or the election operations involving them. Many of them have deep suspicions about the voting machines but have spoken always in hushed tones for being ridiculed for their lack of knowledge and ignorance.
The Election Commission says that it has a number of checks and balances in place and people should "trust" the electronic voting machines despite their gaping security holes; then "trust" the myriad players – domestic public and private sector companies and foreign companies – engaged in manufacturing and checking these machines and "trust" the district and local officials that guard these machines at all times and handle them at the time of elections with their woefully inadequate understanding of the technology, its limitations and their potential to manipulate elections?
All this begs a simple question: are we running "faith-based" elections that we should "trust" all these insiders and not question their actions shrouded in mystery? We cannot pride ourselves being a vibrant democracy if our election results are reduced to merely our faith in agencies involved in the conduct of elections.
This excessive reliance on "faith" and not on what can you see and verify is a consequence of the new electronic voting regime. In the days of paper ballots, voters and candidates could see every stage of the voting process in a transparent manner. You saw what you got. In the case of any doubt, you had the opportunity of a recount of individual physical ballots.
In the electronic voting machines, votes are recorded electronically and if the data is manipulated and the original mandate gets lost, you would not get an opportunity to establish that this has been done and, of course, no consequential remedy is possible.
How do we promote transparency in our voting system? If you want a simple solution, revert to the old paper ballot system. There is no system that can be more transparent than that. This is what a number of countries like Germany, Holland and Ireland have discovered after experimenting with the electronic voting machines.
In Europe today, elections are predominantly conducted through paper ballots. That speaks a lot about a technology that was fashionable to adopt some time ago but has been discarded for fear of undetected manipulation and lack of transparency.
If you firmly believe that India should not move away from electronic voting machines, which admittedly have some advantages, the next best thing is to adopt what is commonly referred to as Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT).
(Also read: http://www.indiasamvad.co.in/special-stories/%E2%80%98foolproof%E2%80%99-evms-what-ec-told-sc-in-the-past--20747)
Under VVPAT, the voting machines produce a paper record (a print out) of every single vote cast by the voters on the voting machines. After casting the vote on the EVM, the voter will examine the physical print out for its accuracy and if satisfied that there is no discrepancy, deposit the vote in a ballot box. This would ensure that even if the machine is manipulated, you still have the paper record to establish the election fraud.
VVPAT system generates a print out of every vote, much like the slip that the ATM machine spits out every time you carry out a transaction on it.
Would you be comfortable with the idea of withdrawing or depositing cash in an ATM if it has no provision to give you a proof of transaction in the form of a printout? I am sure most people won't be comfortable with the idea. We all are very careful in protecting our money. Then, why do we become complacent and meekly surrender our sovereign right to choose our governments? Doesn't our democracy deserve better than these voting machines which function as black boxes and we as voters, have no clue as to what happens inside them?
A key question arises: why is the Election Commission so devoted to a voting system that is distrusted and discredited all over the world today? This will remain a subject of speculation as long as the Commission is seen to be blocking improvements and safeguards in electronic voting.
(Edited excerpts from the book ‘ Democracy at risk: Can we trust our Electronic Voting Machines?’ , written by BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao in 2010, when the BJP was in opposition.)