Pilot poll tests electronic voting with a paper trail

Pilot poll tests electronic voting with a paper trail

New Delhi: The Election Commission (EC) on Sunday conducted a pilot poll in four locations to establish a paper trail for electronic voting machines (EVMs)—an attempt to provide a paper backup for every vote cast on these devices.

The trial—conducted in Leh in Jammu and Kashmir, Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, and in east Delhi district—tested the voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) prototypes made by Bharat Electronics Ltd and Electronics Corp. of India Ltd.

The locations were chosen to represent extreme environmental conditions. The pilot will be conducted in Meghalaya on Tuesday.

Several political parties including the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, claim EVMs are not tamper-proof and have been demanding a paper backup.

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“We are conducting the simulated election exercise today to see how this system performs. The response even to this mock election has been positive and we will now analyse all the feedback," said an EC official who did not want to be identified.

The system on trial comprises an interface that connects an EVM to a printer and has a list of candidate details corresponding with the EVM.

When a person votes for a candidate by pressing a button on the EVM, a paper ballot with the serial number, name and symbol of the candidate will be printed.

For the trial, two kinds of printers were used. In one, the printer was sealed and inaccessible to the voter with a transparent window in the front. Once the vote is cast, the printed ballot remains in front of the transparent window for five seconds for the voter to verify it, after which it automatically falls into a sealed box. In the other system, there is an open printer and the voter gets a thermal print out of the ballot, which he then has to drop into a sealed ballot box.

In the trials the paper ballots will be counted and cross-checked with votes recorded in the EVMs.

In East Delhi, the trial was conducted in 36 polling stations, with the printer systems equally divided. Each polling station also had a feedback room where voters were asked to fill forms giving their inputs on the experiment.

Most voters said a paper backup gave them greater reassurance that their vote had been cast correctly. “At least now we know the button we have pressed is where the vote has actually been registered. We can physically see that the candidate we have voted for has got our vote," said Jitendra Kumar who came to cast his ballot at the polling station in IP Extension.

But Anari Devi, who voted at the same station, said the system made no difference to her as she was illiterate. EC officials, however, say the paper slips also bear the symbols of each candidate, apart from his name and serial number, to precisely address this concern.

“Those who cannot read or write can always verify by seeing the symbol. That is how they vote, by identifying the candidate or party’s symbol," said R. Kaul, presiding officer at the IP Extention station.

G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, psephologist and a critic of EVMs, says while the pilot seems to have been successful from the “voters’ point of view", certain “technical and political concerns" need to be addressed.

“There have been no technical snags so far, so we can say this solution seems to be working... However, certain guidelines need to be evolved. Obviously, in a real election, the paper ballots cannot be counted for each constituency. We are demanding a sample audit for some constituencies chosen at random in each election to verify whether the paper votes add up to the votes cast in the EVMs," Rao said. “Also, in those constituencies where the margin of victory is less than the audit error margin, results should not be announced before counting the paper votes as well to validate the results."

Many voters and electoral officers seemed to prefer the sealed printer system.

“The open printer is more tedious. Voters have to collect the slips, fold them correctly and we need to ensure each voter is putting his slip in the ballot box. This is more tedious and one needs to keep a close eye, whereas the other system is automatic," said Sudarshan Kumar, presiding officer at a polling station with the open printer system.

“The sealed system is better. We can see the slip and yet there is no risk of anyone not putting the slip in or putting a blank chit into the ballot box," said Shobha Prasad, who cast her vote in both the systems.

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 people voted through EVMs.

“We have a high-level election reforms committee and we will discuss this pilot and give suggestions to the EC," said BJP national vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who visited polling stations in Delhi. “A slight change in the current system, like the paper back-up which we have been demanding, will definitely give voters more satisfaction... We, however, prefer the sealed printer, which is more tamper-proof," Naqvi said.