Charges of hacking and tampering of electronic voting machines dominated the political discourse in 2017.
In 1999, electronic voting machines (EVMs) replaced paper ballots as they were considered to be more secure and tamper-proof. But throughout 2017, they remained in the limelight for reasons that were to the contrary. With as many as 13 political parties alleging their manipulation and tampering in various assembly elections, the charges around these machines remained as important in political discourse as the elections themselves.
BSP first to cry foul, 12 other parties air similar views
It all began in February 2017 with the assembly elections to five states. As the results began pouring in on March 11, the first to allege that EVMs had been tampered with was the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati. As her party won just 19 seats out of 403 in the Uttar Pradesh assembly despite having secured over 22% of the votes, she demanded fresh elections. “Either the EVMs did not accept votes other than BJP, or the votes of other parties have gone to BJP in the EVMs,” she was quoted as saying by ANI.
Subsequently, 12 other parties also alleged EVM hacking. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which was beaten in the Punjab assembly elections despite being pegged to win comfortably by several opinion polls, also charged that the EVMs had been manipulated. The party managed to win just 20 seats and was upset by the Congress, which, led by Amarinder Singh, won 77 seats in the 117-member assembly.
While the initial murmurs could have been taken as the grouse of losing competitors, AAP refuse to let go of the issue. After suffering a defeat in the municipal elections in Delhi as well – where again EVMs were used – it decided to take the matter ahead by proving that there indeed was something “wrong” with the EVMs.
AAP’s EVM tampering demonstration in Delhi assembly
On May 9, the party sprang a surprise on all when at a special session of the Delhi assembly its MLA Saurabh Bharadwaj “demonstrated” how EVM machines can be manipulated. An engineering graduate who worked with several software companies before joining the AAP, Bharadwaj demonstrated how a person, while posing as a voter, can apparently use secret codes to manipulate the EVM’s results.
The demonstration assumed significance since earlier in April, there were reports of EVM manipulation in Bhind in Madhya Pradesh and Dholpur in Rajasthan which the Election Commission (EC) had denied.
Bhardwaj insisted that the idea was to demonstrate how EVM tampering is possible despite the EC always maintaining that these machines count not be tampered with during an actual election process due to the several safeguards in place. “I will demonstrate that the faith of democracy in India rests on machines that a simple man like me can manipulate,” he said.
For its part, AAP claimed that the demonstration had established that EVMs were not tamper-proof. During the exercise, a “mock poll” was also conducted on an EVM by Bhardwaj, which apparently showed how results could be altered. Through the “live mock test”, the MLA then demonstrated how a large number of votes polled for AAP apparently went to the BJP on the EVM used by him. The AAP leader also insisted that EC’s inquiry report into allegations of EVM tampering in the assembly elections held this year had failed to offer any explanation.
The EC later that same evening responded by terming the exercise in the Delhi assembly a “so-called demonstration of tampering” through a “look-alike” EVM. It said “it is common sense that gadgets other than ECI EVMs can be programmed to perform in a pre-determined way, but it simply cannot be implied that ECI EVMs will behave in the same manner because they are technically secured and function under an elaborate administrative and security protocol.”
Also read: Election 2019: As More of India Comes Online, an Increasing Vulnerability to Its Electoral Process
Idea of EVM ‘challenge’ floated at all-party meeting
The demonstration, however, forced the EC’s hand and on May 12 it called for a meeting of all political parties that had participated in the February assembly elections. At this meeting, the EC announced its decision to address concerns by allowing the parties an opportunity to try and hack into the voting machines. It declared that during the exercise, EVMs used in the earlier elections would be used. The meeting was attended by representatives of all seven national parties and 35 of the 48 state-recognised parties.
CEC assures VVPAT use in all future elections
The then chief election commissioner (CEC) Nasim Zaidi also assured the parties that voter-verifiable paper audit trails (VVPAT) would be used in all future elections to the parliament and state assemblies. He also said that the VVPAT slips of a percentage of EVMs – still to be determined by ECI – will be counted.
He had, however, debunked the charges of EVM manipulation at Bhind and Dholpur as “baseless perceptions”.
Political parties apprehensive about EVMs
While the EC used the meeting to make a detailed presentation on the security features of its EVMs, several political parties had expressed their apprehensions around their vulnerability.
Atul Anjan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) even demanded that the use of EVMs be stopped, saying even the developed countries like the US use paper ballots because “the EVMs can be hacked”. His view was, however, not shared by Nilotpal Basu of the CPI(M), who opposed the idea of returning to ballot papers. He, however, demanded that EVMs be subjected to independent checks.
Basu along with several other representatives was of the view that the VVPAT be matched with at least 15% of the votes cast in each polling booth and the outcome be made known to all.
AAP had alleged that the EC’s hacking exercise was an eye-wash since it imposed several restrictions. The BJP had supported the use of EVMs saying that 37 cases pertaining to EVM tampering had gone to court, and in all of the 30 which had been decided, the court had found the EVMs to be tamper-proof.
The Congress had also adopted a cautious line and stated that it wants a “trustworthy system” and demanded that in the VVPAT, more than seven seconds should be given to the voters to see who their vote went to.
EVM ‘challenge’ fails to live up to billing
When the EVM challenge finally took place on June 4, it fizzled out and ended up as just another demonstration of the machines as the CPI(M) and the Nationalist Congress Party – the only two parties to confirm their participation in the EVM challenge – opted to stay away from trying to hack the EVMs under the rules and regulations of the EC.
As for the other parties, AAP and the Congress, which had following the assembly election results in March this year alleged that EVMs had been tampered, had not applied for participating in the challenge, while the CPI, Rashtriya Janata Dal and the BJP had only “expressed their interest to observe” the challenge. The All India N.R. Congress had written that it would not be participating.
So despite EC’s attempts, the EVM challenge failed to live up to its billing and the issue of EVM tampering kept resurfacing repeatedly. One positive fallout was the EC’s decision to use VVPATs in all subsequently polls. It later even decided to go for VVPAT counting in just one randomly-selected polling station in every constituency.
Realising that mandatory paper trail count even in a small percentage of polling stations could lead to delay in results by several hours, the EC, however, decided not to go for mandatory counting of paper trail in a designated percentage of polling stations.
VVPATs tally with EVM count in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh
In the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections, the EC claimed there was a 100% match in random vote count on EVMs and paper trail slips. But the debate over the security of EVMs continued.
On December 15, when the matter went to the Supreme Court, it refused to entertain a plea of the Gujarat Congress seeking counting of at least 25% of the paper trail slips manually along with votes cast in the EVMs in each constituency of the state. Senior Congress leaders and advocates, Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Kapil Sibal, while appearing for the party, had demanded that that the EC be directed to cross verify at least 25% of VVPAT with votes cast with the EVMs. The court, however, held that it would not interfere unless EC’s decision to restrict the EVM-VVPAT paper trail to one booth per constituency was proved “arbitrary”, “illegal” or “malafide”.
Congress urges at least 10-15% of all votes be tallied
Subsequently, Singhvi had demanded that at least 10-15% of all votes be tallied with the VVPAT. He had also insisted that the Congress was not against EVMs per se, but since now there are VVPAT with all machines, it wanted that the sampling of voting on EVMs with the VVPAT trail be done in at least 10-15% cases if not 25%. He said the party would later file a comprehensive case in the matter before the apex court. The debate is still alive and the last words are yet to spoken on the perceived vulnerability of EVMs.