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Can you trust the vote machine?

These are the headquarters of Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL), one of the two state-owned companies that manufacture the electronic voting machine (EVM) — a shoebox-sized device on which rests the efficacy of electoral politics in this nation with 714 million registered voters.

india Updated: Sep 21, 2009 00:44 IST
Aman Sethi

These are the headquarters of Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL), one of the two state-owned companies that manufacture the electronic voting machine (EVM) — a shoebox-sized device on which rests the efficacy of electoral politics in this nation with 714 million registered voters.

Indian voters have used EVMs repeatedly over the last nine years, and the switch from ballot papers has helped drastically cut the time spent on vote counting. Countries like Sri Lanka, Malaysia, South Africa, Maldives and Nepal now want them.

But alongside, doubts have also been raised in India and other countries over the safety of such machines.

An HT reporter given access into the EVM manufacturing units discovered that India perhaps has the safest, most advanced voting machines in the world.

Their simplicity is their strength —the Indian EVM is simply not sophisticated enough to hack into — but their security comes down

How it works

EVM has two parts linked by a cable: A balloting unit, inside the voting booth, and a control unit placed outside, under the supervision of an election officer.
Once a voter signs against his/ her name at the booth, the ballot unit is ‘armed’— the ‘Ballot’ button is pressed and the machine primed. The voter is then ushered into the booth and presses the button against the candidate of his/ her choice. The EVM sends the coded information to the control unit, where is decoded and stored.
EVM then goes dead for 12 seconds to prevent more than one vote being cast. It is then re-armed.
Polling over, the election officer presses another button, in the presence of polling agents, to electronically seal the machine. No more votes can be cast — unless the machine is restarted and all the information erased.
On day of counting, “strong room” is opened and ‘Count’ button pressed to reveal the number of votes.
to a wax seal.

“No one has been able to rig the EVM,” says Ashwani Datta, chairman and managing director of BHEL. The first prototypes of the machine were ready as early as the 1970s, but it was introduced only in 2000.

“It isn’t such a complex technology,” Datta explains, “but a lot of time was needed to make people understand that it cannot be rigged.”

Still, the trustworthiness of voting machines is at the heart of debate.

In the US, doubts have been raised over their reliability. In Germany, the Federal Constitutional Court has declared their use unconstitutional. And in India, Leader of Opposition Lal Krishna Advani asked for the reintroduction of ballot papers for the October 13 elections in Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh.

It is an issue only likely to escalate in the coming months, and in August, it forced the Election Commission of India to hold an unprecedented demonstration of the machine’s many security features (see box).

I V Sarma, director for research and development at BHEL, says technologically, the machine is more secure than those used in the US.

The programmes are unalterable, each EVM is a stand-alone machine bereft of networking capability and permits only 300 votes an hour and 2,000 votes in all, making booth-capturing a painstaking process.

Since the machines are disconnected from any network, it is impossible to carry out widespread rigging. Breaking into the machine is a bit like trying to hack into a pocket calculator.

Critics of the system point out that the machine leaves no paper trail.

“When you press a button on the machine, what is the certainty that the vote shall be counted in favour of a particular candidate?” asks Sanjay Parikh, a lawyer representing Andhra Pradesh Election Watch, a voluntary group that is seeking a Supreme Court ban on EVMs.

“Since the chips are manufactured abroad, what is to prevent a manipulation of the code?” he asked.

To allay such fears, election norms mandate that on the day of elections, a mock poll be conducted. Agents of each candidate cast votes to confirm that the machines are working correctly.

The control unit is then cleared of all votes and sealed, using a thread and wax seal on which each agent affixes his or her signature. Once polling is complete, the strong room is also sealed with thread and wax and candidates are allowed to post agents to keep watch.

Logistically, however, the system is vulnerable.

Nothing stops a corrupt election official with access to the seal from simply erasing the data, punching in an equal number of votes for the candidate of his choice — which will take a maximum of about five hours per machine — and reaffixing the seal.

The agents present at the time of counting the votes are not the same as those present when the machines were sealed.

BHEL officials refused to comment on such concerns, saying these fell under the Election Commission’s purview. The Commission officials declined to comment on this story.

“The 2006 version of these machines carries a time-stamping technology that records the time each time a button is pressed,” explains P V Professor Indiresan, former Director of Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai and chairman of a committee formed to evaluate the safety of the EVM. “This information can be printed out under the directions of a court of law.”

An unauthorised “re-polling” carried out in secrecy could be detected at the time of counting, by comparing these time stamps. The control unit also records data of the past 20 elections , offering a “history of use signature” that can be checked for anomalies incase tampering is suspected.

Here is the catch, though: only 40 per cent of the machines currently in use have this technology.

So until all the machines are upgraded, the greatest threat to a free and fair election comes not from the high-tech hacker but from the corrupt official or sleeping security guard.