Paper trail machines are not enough to fight allegations of doctored EVMs
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Paper trail machines are not enough to fight allegations of doctored EVMs

To counter the charge of manipulation in electronic voting machines, the Election Commission should consider using a chip with an embedded one-time programmable non-volatile memory

analysis Updated: Jun 01, 2017 10:37 IST
Omesh Saigal
Omesh Saigal
Arvind Kejriwal,Delhi Assembly,Election Commission
Aam Aadmi Party legislator Saurabh Bharadwaj demonstrates how an EVM can be manipulated at the special Delhi Assembly session convened by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, May 9. (PTI)

After the farcical demonstration on a dummy machine in the Delhi Assembly, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal reportedly said: “Give me the EVM for 90 seconds and I will change the mother board.” It is akin to asking in case of voting by paper ballot: Give me the ballot box for 90 seconds and I’ll stuff it with ballots stamped in my favour.

Fortunately, the system evolved by the Election Commission (EC) ensures that no unauthorised person ever handles the EVM.

I had raised the red flag in 2009 on the EVMs but it was because our study revealed that, despite all the excellent precautions and checks prescribed by the EC, the possibility of tampering exists.

The ‘mind’ of the machine is the chip on which is written a programme which controls the machine. The programme is neither written by election commission officers nor is the programme ‘fused’ to the chip in their presence. Having public sector companies writing the programme is no safeguard since ultimately a minister can control them. Moreover, since the programme is fused abroad and it is ‘unreadable’ once fused, how can the Election Commission be sure that a ‘trojan’ programme hasn’t been written instead?

The ‘trojan’ programme can remain dormant when various checks are being carried out in the presence of the parties and candidates and can be activated, let us say, at the time of voting or counting. It will follow the commands of a ‘controller’ who can then rig the polling in whichever way he likes. It is not relevant that our EVMs are ‘standalone’ machines: the ‘trojan’ programme can be activated by remote control means, as I’ve demonstrated in various forums.

I’m glad that since then a number of safeguards have been introduced, especially the gradual introduction of the VVPAT (Voter verified voter audited trail, better known as ‘paper trail’). All EVMs in the recently-held Goa assembly polls and 35 randomly selected constituencies out of 117 in Punjab had VVPATs. While it is impossible to question the results in Goa; in Punjab we can at least statistically check up and rule out or otherwise any possibility of fraud.

Out of the 42.64 lakh votes polled in 35 constituencies with VVPAT, AAP got 10.54 lakh and the INC 22.41 lakh; this means that the AAP got 24.7% and INC 42.6%. In all the 117 constituencies, out of 154.4 lakh votes cast, AAP got 36.6 lakh and the INC 59.5 lakh; this is 23.7% for AAP and 38.5% for the INC respectively. I do not find the difference statistically significant to indicate any major fraud.

One only wishes the Delhi MCD elections too had some VVPAT machines; these would have addressed some of the reasonable concerns of the losing parties.

No matter what the result, losing parties will always raise the red flag; in the good old paper ballot days it was ‘booth capturing’ and ‘paper stuffing’, now it is ‘machine tampering’. I feel it is necessary for the EC to be able to answer their concerns.

In my letter to then chief election commissioner SY Quraishi in 2010, I had suggested that the existing chip be replaced with another chip with an ‘embedded one-time programmable (OTP) non-volatile memory’ and then get a ‘sentry’ programme fused into the chip. By enabling parties and candidates to ‘check sentry software through an open standard specification’, it will generate confidence and also fulfil essential conditions of ‘public scrutiny of elections’.

Omesh Saigal is former Chief Secretary, Delhi

The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 11, 2017 12:45 IST