When EVMs were introduced to the Indian electoral system, it was generally welcomed by all. We were told that these machines will reduce the election expenses and would help in serving environment as we no longer have to be dependent on paper. In addition, we were told that it will curb the loot of ballot boxes. These features no doubt appeal to all those who believe in the wellbeing of the country, as a result without much hesitation or opposition the EVMs replaced the ballot papers in India.
The First Allegation against EVMs
Within a few years, however, an alarm of suspicion was raised against it. This was not from any political party but from a Hyderabad based computer engineer Hari K Prasad, who demonstrated the vulnerability of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) by tampering with the original EVM machine1. Since he had used the original machine for his experiment the government ordered his arrest and thus the matter turned into a different shape. At that moment other than Telugu Desam Party leader Chandrababu Naidu, none of the political parties or civil society members shared their concern2. Later he along with his colleagues also wrote an academic piece suggesting how easily one can temper the EVMs (Prasad et al 2010)3. But despite all these exercises, none has shown any serious concern against the EVMs.
Among political leaders, it was Subramaniam Swamy alone who ridiculed the use of electronic voting machines during elections in India by accepting that they could tamper with much ease. He even filed a Public Interest Litigation in Supreme Court questioning the use of electronic voting machines. The Supreme Court then had directed the Chief Election Commissioner to look into the plea and finally on 8th October 2013 Supreme Court insisted on the use of VVPAT in order to ensure the transparency4. The suggestion of the use of VVPAT by Supreme Court seems to attest to the possibility of tempering the EVMs. But even after this order none of the political parties shared their concern on the continuation of EVM usage, they even remained silent on adding the feature of VVPAT. As a result, the general election of 2014 was held on EVMs without VVPAT. The general election of 2014 was thus in a way in violation of the Supreme Court order.
The Rise in Suspicion
There was no discontent among political parties till then, however, with the grand victory of Narendra Modi led BJP in the Lok Sabha election; some political parties started raising their suspicion against these machines. A few days later the BJP’s ascendency in Uttar Pradesh assembly election further accentuates the doubts against EVMs. As a result, many political parties and civil societies become more vocal against it. In a recent meeting of political parties called by the Election Commission of India, seventeen opposition parties have come together to make a fresh demand that voters in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections exercise their franchise by stamping the ballot paper, not pressing the button on EVMs.5
Their argument of opposing EVM, however, remained limited and focused only on one point that there is the probability of tampering with the EVMs. However, if this is the only risk involved in EVMs, the added feature of VVPAT could be a fine solution to this problem as also suggested by the Supreme Court. Precisely with this argument, the demand for replacing EVMs with ballot papers is easily challenged by any sane agency. The opponents of EVMs, however, failed to notice that apart from the possibility of tampering with the machines there is an even bigger danger in using EVMs.
The Real Risks with EVMs
Some years ago on the issue of NOTA, I wrote a piece in EPW where I argued that use of the NOTA would lead in branding the NOTA voters in tribal areas as separatists and Naxalites (Katulkar 2013)6. The use of EVMs can lead to identification of these voters.
The biggest flaw in the use of EVM is that it could easily reveal the voting pattern of a particular community, based on a particular polling booth. The reason is simple as the votes are counted from each EVM from respective polling booths, the number of votes cast for each party could easily be decoded by the political party agents.
One could ask how a political party’s agent can decode the votes from EVM. The answer is simple, despite the claim of growing cosmopolitan culture and development, the human settlements in our country whether rural or urban is still largely based on caste and religious pattern. Even metros like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata are not exceptions. In all towns and cities, the Dalits and Muslims are still ghettoized in their respective bastis. The Dalit localities such as Bhim Nagars have existence in all the cities and towns. In some cities, there are separate Christian colonies. In the case of Muslims, even their occupational mobility in upper-class stature does not allow them to leave the traditional Muslim locality for the fear of communal riots. For instance, in Bhopal, the Muslim and non-Muslim population is clearly segregated in old and new Bhopal so is the case in Delhi and most of the cities where there is a sizeable population of Muslims. In rural areas, caste-based settlements are such a well-known fact that it doesn’t need any description. And in the case of tribals, the situation is more vulnerable where even the villages and clusters of villages exclusively belong to them only.
In such cases of spatial segregation, the EVMs could easily reveal the voting pattern of a particular community. As and when votes are counted from a particular polling booth where there is a sizeable presence of a particular community, the counting of votes could easily trace the voting behaviour of a particular community. The local poll agents of the political parties are smart enough to trace the voting pattern of an individual voter on the basis of the counting of votes in a particular booth. These agents, unlike bookish scholars, have a very good understanding of the community at least in terms of political associations. Thus with the use of EVM, the polling does not remain a secret voting and it breaks the constitutional provision of secret voting.
Safeguards for Secret Voting and Seshan’s Successful attempt
The framers of the constitution of India were well aware of the ground reality of open voting; therefore, they introduced the concept of secret voting in our country. They were aware that if the voters’ choice is not hidden during polling then there is always a possibility of forced voting. The dominant social group can easily force the vulnerable communities to cast their votes under its pressure. Dr Ambedkar refers to the ancient Buddhist custom of secret voting to ensure the practice of free and fair elections. During a debate in the constituent assembly Shri R.K. Sidhva also said:
The secret ballot-box could also be provided in the Constitution which is very essential for an election. The whole thing depends upon the election for the future constituencies and if we do not make this provision in the Constitution and leave it to Parliament to be made, it will be running a great risk.7
Therefore, our parliament adopted the secret voting system in principle. However, in practice, the present days EVMs and erstwhile ballot papers both easily defy the secrecy and actually reveals the identities of the voters as discussed earlier.
However, the revolutionary change in the system was introduced by TN Seshan, who devised a new technique of mixing of the entire ballot papers of the particular constituency in a drum and mixing them together by rotating it upside down with a help of an attached handle. This unique way of mixing ballot papers was a brilliant way to hide the identities of voters, thus the secrecy of voters was ensured. However, with the introduction of EVMs, we again started following the old model of booth-wise counting, which as discussed earlier reveals the identity of voters. Thus the EVMs proved to be a tool against the law of land that ensures free and fair election with a provision of the secret ballot.
It is good that in recent days there is an increase in voice against the use of EVMs but unfortunately these arguments are related only on the possibility of tampering with the machines which are vehemently rejected by the Election Commission. The opponents failed to look at another darker side of the EVMs that it could easily easy reveal the voter’s identity. This is beyond a doubt most detrimental to democracy and against the spirit of the constitution. Therefore it is the need of an hour for the State to rethink the use of EVMs. It is equally needful that civil societies and Human Rights defenders to understand this negative aspect of EVMs in order to save democracy in our country.
1. This issue was not prominently covered by media. It received attention only in select English newspapers. I tried to search the original news in google but apart from the news covered in The Hindu dated 22 August 2010, there is no other link available from the mainstream media.
2. Reported in The Hindu dated 22 August 2010, under heading “Missing EVM: techie arrested”. See https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/Missing-EVM-techie-arrested/article16141308.ece
3. This paper is written jointly written by Hari K. Prasad, J. Alex Halderman† Rop Gonggriji, Scott Wolchok Eric Wustrow, Arun Kankipati, Sai Krishna Sakhamuri, Vasavya Yagati presented at 17th ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (CCS ’10), Oct. 2010, this is available at https://indiaevm.org/evm_tr2010-jul29.pdf
4. Dr. Subramanian Swamy vs Election Commission Of India on 8 October, 2013 available at https://indiankanoon.org/doc/113840870/
5. This news is reported in all the national dailies and for instance see https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/election-commission-convenes-all-party-meet-on-august-27-evm-issue-to-be-in-focus/story-XcTa4pKECm7ZQOZrgpKFHN.html
6. This was published in letters column of EPW available at https://www.epw.in/journal/2013/49/letters/not-good-democracy.html
Prasad, Hari et al (2010), Security Analysis of India’s Electronic Voting Machines, 17th ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (CCS ’10), Oct. 2010.
Katulkar, Ratnesh (2013), “Not Good for Democracy” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 48, Issue No. 49, 07 Dec, 2013 p.p. 4-5.
Ratnesh Katulkar works at Indian Social Institute, New Delhi. He can be contacted at: email@example.com