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Are the Electronic Voting Machines culpable of faulty vote counts?

Electronic Voting Machine in India Photograph: (WION)

WION Delhi, India Apr 12, 2017, 01.31 PM (IST) Ravikiran Shinde

A ‘malfunctioning’ Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) from Bhind in Madhya Pradesh has stirred up a hornet's nest. In a now viral video of April 1, the VVPAT (Voter Verification Paper Audit Trail) Machine was seen as recording and dispensing only  BJP votes, regardless of various party’s button pressed.

A week later, on Friday, April 7th, The Election Commission (EC) has given a clean chit to itself in the case. How can an accused body give a clean chit to itself? Shouldn’t the EC have utilised a third party or an independent observer in this case? The hurried manner in which the EC gave itself a clean chit doesn't bode well and may further rattle the parties who are opposing the machine.

The Bhind incident has given a newfound ammunition to the opposition parties. Particularly, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Aam Admi Party (AAP) have been alleging possible tampering of EVM ever since the results of the five assembly elections came out on March 11. The attacks on the EC have grown sharper and sharper while the Commission has gone on reiterating that EVM machines are infallible. Starting 11th of April, Bahujan Samaj Party has announced that it is starting a nationwide protest against EVM "tampering". 

Even before the Bhind incident, voters in the recently concluded Bombay Municipal Commission elections in Maharashtra had alleged large-scale fraud. On April 6th, 600 people have submitted an affidavit to the Mumbai high court, protesting that the votes were not registered against the candidate for whom they were cast. The petitioners claim that this amount to stealing of votes. 

The Upper House of the Indian parliament witnessed on April  5  unprecedented ruckus with all the members of the Opposition uniting and shouting slogans “EVM ki sarkaar nahi chalegi, nahi chalegi” (the government formed with EVM must go). 

In a press release on March 16, the EC unequivocally reiterated that  “given effective technical and administrative safeguards, EVMs are not temperable and integrity of (the) electoral process is preserved.” The  Press note has, however, raised two major question marks that will have a far-reaching impact. One, the EC’s affirmation that EVMs are infallible and are fully tamper-proof was busted when an  EVM in Madhya Pradesh started dispensing only the BJP party’s symbol, irrespective of the button pressed. 

The action of the EVM can only mean that the machine was either tampered or was behaving weird. The software of the machine appeared to have been compromised as it was storing all votes as only one party’s vote, in this case, the BJP.

Second, the EC had attempted to downplay the EVM malfunctioning, attributing it to lapse in procedure. "This is a standard protocol and there was nothing amiss...According to standard protocol, the old symbols are erased only during first level checking before the next poll. However, it was not done when the demonstration was made on March 31 at Bhind...for which Commission has replaced the District Election Officer," 

This explanation raises more questions than answers. It means that it is possible to have incorrect results coming out of EVMs if machines are not handled properly. Moreover, the question arises whether the protocol was followed during Uttar Pradesh elections for all EVMs at all constituencies. If not, then the machines would have followed the pattern of the previous elections of which it had residual data — which could very well be Maharashtra where BJP had won by a landslide in local body elections just a month ago. Also, how the lapse in erasing of the old symbol could possibly result into all votes going into one party, was not satisfactorily explained. 

The mainstream media, to an extent, raised this issue only after social media had picked this up. The EC responded by suspending the District Magistrate and Superintendant of Police of the district for administrative lapses.

That the EVM machines have been tampered with was first alleged by BSP chief Mayawati, whose party was decimated in Uttar Pradesh election. Interestingly, Mayawati found support from unexpected quarters: Lalu Prasad Yadav, Arvind Kejriwal and, even her bete noir, Samajwadi Party supported her claims. BJP called them bad losers and the mainstream media too did the same. 

In these criticisms, one critical question was missing —the VVPAT system. In response to a petition filed by BJP’s Subramanian Swamy, the Supreme Court gave a ruling on 8th October 2013 that “The confidence of the voter in the EVM machine can be achieved only with the introduction of a paper trail. With the intention to have (the) fullest transparency and to restore the confidence of the voters, it is necessary to set EVMs with a VVPAT system because a vote is nothing but an act of expression which has immense importance in the democratic system”.

This order is indeed of immense importance. The order negates the affidavit filed in the Supreme court that the EVMs, in its current form (without VVPAT), were tamper-proof and fully reliable. The SC did not accept the contention and asked the EC to implement VVPAT "in gradual stages" through different geographical regions in the ensuing general elections. The Court also directed the Government of India to “provide required financial assistance for procurement of units of VVPAT.”  

Now, what would have happened if there was no VVPAT attached to the faulty machine in Bhind, Madhya Pradesh? Perhaps, nobody would have ever known that despite pressing the button for various parties, the final vote was getting casted only for BJP.

3 Years and 3 months since this order, and numerous state elections and one general election of 2014, the proportion of VVPAT machines installed is miniscule. During UP elections, only 20 constituencies had VVPAT out of 403 constituencies. 

Why is EC backtracking on its promise to have VVPAT before 2019 elections? And what does the EC say about the progress? A press release of EC said that it was “relentlessly pursuing with the Govt. for sanction and release of funds of Rs. 3174 cr and requisite number of VVPATs" so that they could be used in all polling centers in (the) general election in 2019. The EC hopes to get the requisite number of VVPAT manufactured in 30 months time from the time of the release of fund by the government.

The Election Commission stated that it has procured 20,000 VVPATs in 2013 and has since used VVPATs in 143 assembly constituencies. But so far, VVPATs have been used in 255 assembly constituencies and 09 parliamentary constituencies. 

So far, the Election Commission has been tardy about taking the necessary steps; nor has the Indian government released the requisite fund. 

A Supreme Court bench has issued a notice to the EC on March 24 as to why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against it for its failure to use Electronic Voting Machines with Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail.  In fact, a contempt petition filed in March this year by Waman Meshram of BAMCEF organization stated that the EC  was not following SC order of implementing VVPAT.

 One fails to understand why the EC has not approached the Supreme Court to order speedy dispensation of the funds so that VVPAT machines can be put at the earliest. But the ECI  doesn’t seem to be in a hurry for reasons beyond understanding. 

Instead of acting fast as per apex court order, the EC was seen engaging with political parties like AAP. The ECI said, “it is for your party to introspect as to why your party could not perform as per your expectation, and it is unfair on the part of your party to attribute unsatisfactory poll performance of your party to the alleged tamperability of the EVMs.”

Perhaps, this was the first time, the EC has asked a political party to introspect on the election results. Former Chief Election Commissioner Mr. S. Y. Qureshi has criticised this, asking the Commission to avoid making a political statement. He considered the hue and cry over the EVM machine as natural. He wrote that any doubt on the EVM was a matter of serious concern and asked the EC to apologise and asked that the VVPAT should be implemented “without delay”.

The Madhya Pradesh EVM case stresses on the fierce urgency of VVPAT Machines, for without which, there is no way a voter knows whether his vote has been cast for a right candidate. A doubt in the voters’ mind, doubled by the recent developments, does not augur well for our democracy. Every attempt must be made so that common people’s faith in the election process is sustained.

Ravikiran Shinde

Independent writer on socio-political issues in India

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