Election Commission tests a paper trail for electronic voting

Election Commission tests a paper trail for electronic voting

New Delhi: The Election Commission of India (EC) on Tuesday has readied a pilot to establish a paper trail for the electronic voting machine (EVM).

The pilot, to be launched in July, if successful would provide for a paper back up for every vote cast on the EVM and thereby address the growing criticism from some quarters that the technology is not tamper-proof.

EC plans to hold field trials of the voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) prototypes, made by Bharat Electronics Ltd and Electronics Corp. of India Ltd, next month across 35 polling stations in five locations that have been chosen to represent extreme environmental conditions.

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“It is a verifiability test... At the end of it, we will be able to do an analysis to see how the VVPAT performed and based on that, a decision would be taken," said deputy election commissioner Alok Shukla.

While it would make EVM use safer, it would raise the costs of conducting elections. Officials declined to provide any estimate; at present, each EVM costs just under 10,000.

EVMs have been at the centre of a controversy with activists and several political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, as well as regional parties, alleging that they are not tamper-proof.

EVMs were used for the first time in 45 seats in the 1999 general election. Polling in the 2004 elections was entirely through EVMs. In 2009, 671 million voted through EVMs.

The EVM-VVPAT system consists of an interface which connects an EVM to a printer which has a list of candidate details corresponding with the EVM.

Under the VVPAT system, when the voter presses the button for the candidate of his choice in the EVM, a paper ballot with the serial number, name and symbol of the candidate will be printed.

For the field trial, two kinds of printers will be used. In one system, the printer will be completely sealed and inaccessible to the voter with a transparent window in the front. Once the vote is caste, the printed ballot will remain in front of the transparent window for five seconds for the voter to verify it, after which it will automatically fall into a sealed box.

In the other system, there would be an open printer and the voter will get a thermal print out of the ballot, which he would then have to drop in a sealed ballot box before leaving the polling station.

For the trials, paper ballots from the printers will also be counted and cross-checked with votes recorded in the EVM.

G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, psephologist and a critic of EVMs, says VVPAT is a “compromise solution". “The present situation has arisen because of the non-transparent nature of the voting process where nobody knows what happens inside that box and it is not open to scrutiny... However, whether the present solution works on the field remains to be seen. EC might have to innovate and improvise further."

In order to make the process more inclusive, the commission has asked all recognized national and state parties to participate in the field tests by sending their representatives and polling agents. “We will also have a voter feedback form to get suggestions from voters as well as know if they have faced any difficulty," Shukla said.

The commission had signalled a rethink of its stand on EVMs in October last year when it agreed to consider the feasibility of a paper-vote trail of every ballot registered during polling. This was after the opposition BJP sought a paper trail in the meeting between political parties and EC on 4 October.

EC had till then held that EVMs were foolproof and don’t quite require any paper-based confirmation. EC then referred the matter to a technical committee headed by P.V. Indiresan, former director of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Chennai. The committee had recommended field testing of the prototypes.