The Case for Bringing Paper Ballots Back

Public trust in electronic voting machines has never been lower than it is today and there's a good reason why.

Electronic voting machines (EVMs) have been the subject of public questioning for weeks now. People have argued for the return to paper ballots, as is the case in several global democracies.

Public trust in EVMs has never been lower than it is today. This is because EVM voting does not comply with the essential principles of democracy that any electoral system should satisfy. 

The response of the Election Commission of India (ECI) to this criticism is to hold roadshows “demonstrating” EVMs and naively bombarding the public with reams of ‘Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)’. 

Globally, there are five types of voting systems in use:

1. Paper ballots,
2. EVMs,
3. EVMs with Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT),
4. Machine-readable paper ballots, and
5. Internet-based voting.

India started with the first type, then went on to the second and is now using the third. While paper ballots comply with principles of democracy, EVMs do not. These principles are:

  • The voting process should be transparent in a manner that the general public should have the knowledge and satisfaction that their vote is correctly recorded and counted.
  • The voting and counting process should be publicly auditable.
  • Ordinary citizens should be able to check the essential steps in the voting process. 
  • There should be examinability and verifiability of the voting process, counting of votes and ascertainment of the results.
  • An election process should not only be free and fair, but also be seen to be free and fair.
  • The ECI should be in full control of the entire voting process.

These can be better explained by comparing the process under the paper-ballot voting system and EVM voting. Let us do it from the perspective of an ordinary voter who is transferring his sovereignty for five years to their elected representative.

Also read: From the Will of the People to the Whim of the Machines

Process under the paper-ballot system:

  • Ballot-box is kept inside a secluded voting compartment;
  • Voter enters the polling station and, after verification, is handed over the ballot-paper;
  • They examine it to check whether their candidate and the corresponding symbol is on the ballot;
  • Voter goes in to the voting compartment where the ballot-box is kept;
  • Voter affixes the stamp on the candidate/symbol of their choice and puts it inside the ballot-box;
  • Counting is done manually, at the counting table, by physically sorting out the votes in the presence of the Returning Officer (RO) and candidates’ agents;
  • The counting table has one tray for each candidate, one for ‘doubtful’ votes and one for ‘rejected’ ones; 
  • As part of verifying/auditing process, votes are bundled (25 each) and tallying is done between votes polled and votes to be counted.
  • They are then counted by placing the votes in respective trays.
  • Agents keep a watch on each vote as it is placed in respective trays. Before the final tally, ‘Rejected’ votes get re-confirmed and ‘doubtful’ votes are reviewed with the agents.
  • All disputes are resolved on the spot, if need be, with the intervention of the RO

Under the paper ballot system, voters can check the accuracy of the ballot-paper, candidate’s name and verify whether it has been correctly marked. This provides knowledge and satisfaction that one has transferred the sovereignty to the candidate of their choice. In case of electoral dispute, physical reconstruction of the vote for authentication is possible. Vote counting is open and transparent.

Process under the electronic voting system:

  • EVM comprises two units — a ballot unit (BU) containing the names of candidates and symbols against each button and a control unit (CU) containing the memory and display component;
  • A voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) relates to the BU and the CU. The BU, CU and VVPAT are interconnected by an insulated cable.
  • The CU is with the polling officer, while the BU and VVPAT are placed inside the voting compartment.
  • Each time a voter enters, the polling officer presses the BU button. As the green light glows, it enables the voter to cast the vote by pressing the button on the BU against the candidate’s name and symbol.
  • Instantly, the serial number, name and symbol of the candidate appears on the window of the VVPAT, remaining for about seven seconds.
  • After seven seconds, a loud beep emanates from the CU, indicating the vote is cast.
  • On the day of counting of votes, the counting official presses counting button on the CU that displays the number of votes polled against each candidate.
  • There is no verification, auditing and dispute resolution on the spot before final results are announced.

Also read: T. N. Seshan, the Unyielding Force That Cleansed India’s Elections

Against absolute transparency of the paper-ballots, there is total opaqueness in the EVM-VVPAT system. Everything is done inside a machine, in a non-transparent manner, without examination, knowledge and satisfaction as to whether sovereignty has been transferred to the candidate of the voter’s choice. All that the voter has is a chance to look at a slip for seven seconds. They have no assurance that the slip was counted or got manipulated between VVPAT and EVM. Under the EVM system, all that a voter does is to press a button, see a light and hear a sound. They have no idea whether the vote has been registered and, if so, to which candidate. There is no transparency even during counting process.

Experts and professionals say that the ECI’s claims of EVM (BU-VVPAT-CU) units being “totally standalone machines having one-time programmable chips” is not true. With the introduction of VVPATs, the name and symbol of the candidates will have to be uploaded to EVMs using an external device after the announcement of elections and finalisation of candidate list. 

The ECI Manual states that the Bharat Electronics Ltd. (BEL) and Electronics Corporation Ltd (ECIL) engineers are to use a device called Symbol Loading Unit (SLU) to electronically upload these details to the VVPAT. The same manual makes it clear that these devices need not be stored in the strong room along with EVM/VVPATs and are to be released to the engineers immediately after the poll  – thus leaving them outside of the custody chain of ROs.

This wired connection of EVM/VVPATs to an external device not maintained within the RO/District Election Officers after the elections are announced, candidate sequence is firmed up, and second randomisation and booth allotment of EVMs finalised,  makes the ECI’s practices in conducting elections extremely suspect. This has exposed the voting and counting to manipulation.

Rule 56(D)(4)(b) of Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, provides that the count of VVPATs shall prevail over the count reflected in EVMs: “If there is discrepancy between the votes displayed on the control unit and the counting of the paper slips, amend the result sheet in Form 20 as per the paper slips count.”

This rule is a statutory admission of the position in law and fact that it is finally the VVPAT which accurately captures the will of the voter and that variance or errors in the results captured in the EVMs cannot be ruled out for any given reason. Given the statutory acknowledgement, it is manifestly arbitrary and in violation of Article 14 to not to fully count the VVPAT slips before the results are declared.

ECI has lost control under the electronic system

Under the ballot paper system, ECI had full control and supervision over the manufacturing of ballot-boxes, printing of ballot-papers, its despatch and counting of votes. That is not the case with EVMs that contains two EEPROMS (Electrically Erasable and Programmable Memory) inside the control unit in which the voting data is stored. 

BEL and ECIL, manufacturers of EVMs, are not under the control or supervision of ECI. They are under the control of the respective ministries  and the day-to-day administration is carried out by the board of directors packed with ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) functionaries.

These entities share the confidential software programme with foreign chip manufacturers to copy it on to micro-controllers used in the EVMs. When these foreign companies deliver micro-controllers fused with software code to the EVM manufacturers, neither the manufacturer nor the ECI officials can read back their contents because they are locked.  

It is clear, therefore, that EVM voting does not comply with any of the principles of democracy that are paramount which makes it imperative for India to return to the paper ballot. The only grievance against this system is that there used to be booth capturing and ballot-stuffing. This was when the supervision, security, transportation and communication systems were primitive – not the case any longer.

Now senior election officials, ECI observers, police and flying squads can observe what is happening in the polling booths live through CCTV cameras and can intervene instantly in the event of any mischief. Besides, sensitive booths are guarded by armed police with orders to shoot in case of any booth capturing and ballot stuffing.  

There is no reason for the ECI not to comply with this demand. Any amendment to election law can be notified in a matter of minutes through ordinance. Logistics of procuring ballot boxes and other material could be done in couple of weeks because they are being used for panchayat and local bodies elections and are continuously being manufactured. Trained personnel are also available. Ballot papers will, in any case, be printed only after the candidate list is finalised. All that is needed is to shortlist printing presses and have them cleared after security checks.

So, without playing ‘marketing agents’ for EVMs, ECI should heed the cry of the people and return to paper ballots to save democracy .

M.G. Devasahayam is former Army and IAS Officer. He is Coordinator of Citizens Commission on Elections and editor of the book Electoral Democracy—An Inquiry into the Fairness and Integrity of Elections in India.