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Citizens' Group Highlights Vulnerability of EVMs, Calls for Greater Clarity in Poll Process

'During the process of drafting the report, we reached out to the ECI several times, but they didn’t respond,' a member of the group told The Wire.

Kolkata: The Citizens’ Commission on Elections (CCE), a civil society group of retired judges, former civil servants, university professors, senior journalists and activists, on Saturday, January 30, released a report on the ‘fallibility’ or ‘vulnerability’ of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and VVPAT (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail) and said that EVM voting should abide by principles of democracy.

The CCE is chaired by retired Supreme Court judge Justice Madan Lokur. The eight-member committee comprises former CIC Wajahat Habibullah, former Madras high court Judge, Justice Hari Paranthaman, economist Arun Kumar, civil society activist John Dayal, senior journalist Pamela Philipose, and Dr Subhashis Banerjee, professor of computer science at IIT Delhi.

In the first report, under the title: ‘Is the Indian EVM and VVPAT System Fit for Democratic Elections?’, CCE’s expert group reviewed the functioning of EVMs primarily on the touchstone of whether and how far their use complied with important ‘democracy principles’ detailed in the enclosed summary.

“During the process of drafting the report, we reached out to the ECI several times, but they didn’t respond. Some of the best domain experts have worked on it, we want ECI to take a look now at least,” John Dayal told The Wire.

The commission was formed on March 5, 2020, on the backdrop of serious controversy arising out of the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) conduct of the parliamentary elections of 2019.

Also read: The 2019 Elections Came Down to Money, EVM Machines and the Media

Media and civil society groups had then voiced serious apprehension at the manner in which the ‘model code of conduct’ was violated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party without adequate retribution from the ECI.

“In the 2019 parliamentary election, VVPAT and electronic votes showed discrepancies. That is not acceptable. We are of the opinion that all VVPATs should be counted along with votes. VVPAT matching is desirable at this stage otherwise manipulations, if any, can never be detected,” former civil servant Jawhar Sircar said at Kolkata press club, while releasing the report.

The commission insisted on absolute transparency while facilitating voters’ right to choose a candidate of their choice and in ensuring that this is faithfully reflected in the counting process — without the slightest deviation whatsoever. The civil society group believe that there should absolutely be no scope for error or misrepresentation of the elector’s choice.

While drafting the report, the group has relied on depositions and expert opinions of several national and international experts. Among the those who deposed before this CCE group were Poorvi L. Vora and Bhagirath Narahari of George Washington University, USA, Alok Choudhary of Northwestern University, USA, and others.

M.G. Devasahayam, the co-ordinator of the Commission told The Wire, “In the recent years India’s democracy has been called into question by international watchdogs. In such a condition, we are advocating to have a free and fair election. The electorate must verify their votes as people are sovereign in this republic. With this report we are trying to make people aware of the current electoral process and what needs to done to ensure voters’ confidence.”

Also read: What the EC Is Hesitant to Tell the Public About EVMs and VVPATs

Key concerns and suggestions highlighted in the report are:

End-to-end verifiability:

Pre-determined and pre-set test patterns are known to be inadequate for verification of the integrity of an EVM. The present EVM system is not verifiable and is therefore unfit for democratic elections. To ensure independence between software and hardware, end-to-end verifiable systems with provable guarantees of correctness must be introduced and the ECI must declare its publicly-verifiable guarantees against spurious vote injections.

Possibility of hacking:

If the correctness of an EVM cannot be established then it is practically impossible to predict whether an EVM can be hacked or not. In particular, that an EVM has not yet been detected to have been hacked provides no guarantee whatsoever that it cannot be hacked. Thus, elections must be conducted assuming that EVMs may possibly be tampered with.

Audit:

There must be a post-election audit of the EVM counts against manual counting of the VVPAT slips. In fact, it may be sufficient to tamper only a few EVMs to swing an election if a contest is close. Thus, in practice, it may be necessary to test more EVMs than even what the civil society and political party’s demand (30% and 50% respectively) to ensure verification and reliable ascertainment of results.

Counting:

There must be a stringent audit of the electronic vote count before the results are declared. The audit should not be based on ad hoc methods but by counting a statistically significant sample of the VVPAT slips according to rigorous and well-established statistical audit techniques. The audit may in some cases, depending on the margin of victory, require a full manual counting of VVPAT slips.