The Supreme Court this week declined to entertain a public interest litigation (PIL) questioning the functioning of electronic voting machines (EVMs), and has asked the petitioner to approach the Election Commission (EC) with his grievance. This comes soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s L.K. Advani voiced concerns about the possibility of the unreliability of EVMs. A visit was made by a former senior bureaucrat to EC on the same issue in early July. Immediately, a few technical experts—who have also raised the issue in the past—sprang into action, citing the possibility of the tampering of EVMs.
In the past, EC always entertained these complaints and offered the complainants a chance to demonstrate their allegations of EVM vulnerability; but nobody has been able to do that. The few high court judgements in the various cases on the matter have also confirmed the reliability of EVMs.
So why does the matter come up again and again? There are misconceptions that EVMs can be hacked and the memory chips doctored; that software can be programmed so votes only go to a particular candidate after a certain number of votes are polled; and even that the votes stored in the machines can be erased due to erratic power supply. Further, comparisons are made with a few countries that experimented with voting machines by using an operating system there.
It is essential to note that EVMs in India—manufactured only by two government undertakings, Bharat Electronics Ltd and Electronic Corp. of India Ltd—have been well conceived and designed. Apart from their technical reliability, there are regular procedures and systems put in place by EC in the conduct of elections.
EVMs are stand-alone systems having a control unit connected to a balloting unit. The control unit is with the polling official and the balloting unit is at the voting spot. Voting can only occur one at a time after the polling official presses the ballot button at his unit.
The control unit contains a micro-controller-integrated circuit and a non-volatile memory which stores the polled votes. The former is one-time programmable, and program codes are fused permanently during the manufacturing of the chip. This code cannot be changed even by the manufacturer thereafter. The memory does not require any battery backup and can store the polled data adequately. If an EVM goes out of order during polls, the votes polled in it will be safely stored in the memory and the replaced EVM will continue to take the votes of the remaining people— who had not cast their votes before. In the event a booth is captured, the number of votes that can be polled is only five per minute, as the machine does not allow mass polling—unlike ballot papers that can be stamped in huge numbers.
We should consider the significant advantages that EVMs have brought into our electoral process. First, it is very easy to vote compared with the ballot paper—where the mark in the right place and the folding have to be done carefully.
In EVMs, the voter has to simply press the blue button and—as the light blinks and there’s a beep—he realizes that his vote has been cast. Second, the impact on cost reduction in the form of savings on the cost of printing ballot papers, transportation and storage is quite huge. This also has an environmental advantage. Third, there is significant simplification of the electoral counting process—both in terms of the time saved and the cost incurred on the counting staff. Fourth, the possibility of invalid votes that was very common in the ballot paper system gets completely eliminated here.
Most importantly, the system has worked in the last few elections for both parliamentary and assembly elections; if major anomalies and systemic problems were observed, the political parties would have been up on their feet against the EVM-based voting system. The Supreme Court has rightly referred the petitioner to EC.
Subimal Bhattacharjee is country head in India for General Dynamics. These are his personal views. Comment at email@example.com