How watertight checks and balances ensure EVMs can’t be tampered with
Just proving that an EVM can be tampered with doesn’t prove that the elections were rigged until the entire set of electoral processes has been compromised, explains the DM of Bastar, Chhattisgarhanalysis Updated: May 23, 2017 16:27 IST
Many political parties have blamed their election losses on electronic voting machines (EVMs). From explaining how motherboards and integrated circuits work, to providing live demonstrations, they are claiming that EVMs can be hacked. However, there’s more to elections than just EVMs. Just proving that a machine can be tampered with doesn’t prove that the elections were rigged. This would require that an entire set of processes has been compromised. To know what is practically possible, and how much is fiction, one has to understand the election process thoroughly.
The EVMs are stored in a strong room, normally at the district collectorate, with round-the-clock security, and are accessible only to officials authorised by the District Magistrate (DM). By default, the DM is also the District Election Officer (DEO).
Each EVM’s record is tracked with its unique security number. The machines are manufactured at two public sector undertakings: ECIL, under the jurisdiction of the department of atomic energy and BEL, under the ministry of defence. As soon as new machines are provided to a district, the DEO takes possession. The transportation is done under watertight security, under the eagle eye of an executive magistrate.
Physical access to machines is a prerequisite to tampering with them, since they don’t have any wireless device or internet connection built in. Theoretically any machine, including EVMs, can be tampered with, provided it is in the hands of a trained technical person. However, the chances of EVMs getting into the hands of unscrupulous persons are next to impossible unless an official takes an enormous risk in facilitating access to such elements. Such security failures cannot happen owing to multiple checks and balances.
When the election process begins, each EVM machine is checked by engineers of the ECIL or BEL in the presence of returning officers, election observers and representatives of political parties. If they discover any fault with the machine, it is kept aside. The unique ID number of the faulty machines, which is stored in the Election Commission software, is deleted. After that, the randomisation of EVMs is done, so that no one knows which EVM will go to which constituency or polling booth in the district. Therefore, unless all EVMs are tampered with, the tampered machines, if any, can land anywhere in the district.
After randomisation, an important step is EVM preparation, where the machine is made ready for the polls. Only authorised persons are allowed inside the hall. However the political parties and candidates are free to inspect any machine. The most crucial component of preparation is a mock poll where every EVM is tested by entering dummy votes, and the results tallied. During the test, 10% of EVMs, which the candidates can choose, are polled more than 1,000 votes. Any machine that gives wrong results or is tampered with will be detected at this stage. Next, the EVMs are sealed with unique paper seals and signed by everybody present. It is next to impossible for a tampered machine to go undetected beyond this stage.
At the polling station, the presiding officer again conducts a mock poll in front of polling agents of the candidates, with at least 100 votes, before the poll begins. If the machine has been tampered with, or its unique paper seal broken, the returning officer or sector officers, who carry extra EVMs for such an eventuality, replace it. In no case is any defective or ‘tampered’ machine used for polling. Once the election is complete, the EVM’s control unit is sealed, after which there is no way to change the data. The EVMs are then brought back to the strong room with elaborate security and sealed in front of political party representatives. The strong room is opened only on counting day and counting done in the presence of candidates. All these processes are transparent with no scope for foul play.
The DM monitors all the aforementioned procedures strictly. Being outsiders to the district, the DM, senior officers and election observers have no vested interests. There is no evidence to believe that the processes are not followed in letter and spirit.
Politicians and experts who believe EVMs can be hacked argue that the Election Commission(EC) doesn’t allow independent or third-party testing of the machines.
In theory, there is a possibility that EVMs can be “hacked” if the integrated circuits are changed; but that physical access does not happen. Also the EC is an independent body and the machines undergo third-party testing many times during mock polls. If processes are followed diligently, there is no way that a “hacked EVM” can enter the system and derail fair elections. Till now, no one has challenged the process, which proves its robustness.
Amit Kataria is collector and district magistrate, Bastar, Chhattisgarh.
The views expressed are personal.