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How do we give people confidence in our voting system?

The complaints about EVMs and the belief they can be tampered with is made by parties that have lost elections. This was as true of the BJP in 2009 as it is of the 21 parties today.

columns Updated: Apr 06, 2019 20:36 IST
Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail,Electronic Voting Machines,Election Commission
A committee appointed by the Election Commission to advise it has concluded that the verification of just 479 VVPATs and EVMs, out of a total of 10.35 lakh, “is sufficient to achieve a confidence level of 99.9936%”.(Samir Jana / Hindustan Times)

Whilst the Supreme Court considers a petition by 21 opposition parties demanding that, alongside the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), at least 50% of the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines also be counted, it’s worth asking whether this political demand is justified or unnecessary.

Let’s start with what the experts believe. A committee appointed by the Election Commission to advise it has concluded that the verification of just 479 VVPATs and EVMs, out of a total of 10.35 lakh, “is sufficient to achieve a confidence level of 99.9936%”.

Laymen like me will question how simply checking 0.046% can give you almost 100% confidence but the answer lies in the mathematical logic of statistical sampling, which is neither easy to understand nor explain. I shall deliberately steer clear of it.

Instead, let me point out that this is more than a matter of mathematical logic. At its heart lies the question: how do we give the Indian people confidence in our voting system? For that, don’t we need to check a bigger sample? Most people would say you do.

In fact, the truth is the Election Commission is already counting a considerably bigger sample. As the Commission told the Supreme Court, they check one VVPAT in each assembly segment of each Lok Sabha constituency. That comes to 4,125 EVMs and VVPATs. That’s actually 8.6 times what the experts have recommended.

One other point: Since 2017, when VVPATs were introduced, 1,500 machines have been tested and not in a single case was an error found. Prima facie that’s a good argument for saying you don’t need to increase the count beyond the number specified by the Commission.

However, if the Commission is forced to do so, there would be clear costs. If as many as 50% of VVPATs are counted, it could delay the results by six days. And since the VVPATs have to be counted manually, you could have mistakes, disputes and inevitable recounts. In effect, we would be back to the old paper ballot system.

Given that the experts believe we already have a VVPAT tally that gives 99.9936% confidence, do we really want to increase it at the cost of delaying the results by six days? Almost certainly not. In fact, I’m pretty sure the opposition parties would also agree.

Yet so strong is the concern that EVMs can be tampered with — even if it’s only limited to opposition parties — that it needs to be addressed. So perhaps just for this election — and not as a rule — perhaps 5% of all EVMs should be counted? This could be sufficient to give the reassurance that’s needed. At the same time, it would only delay the results by just over 12 hours. In the circumstances, that may be acceptable.

Let me, however, raise one further question. The complaints about EVMs and the belief they can be tampered with is made by parties that have lost elections. This was as true of the BJP in 2009 as it is of the 21 parties today. Now to what extent is this because political parties lack confidence in people appointed to the Commission? In 2009, the BJP had doubts about Navin Chawla. Today, the opposition has reservations about Narendra Modi’s appointments.

Surely the answer is to change the way the Commission is appointed? Rather than leave it to the government of the day, it should be done by a collegium comprising people like the Leader of the Opposition and the country’s Chief Justice. Do you agree?

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 06, 2019 20:36 IST