EVM-VVPAT. Photograph:( ANI )
Since 2017, all assembly elections are held with EVMs which are attached with VVPATs.
The general elections 2019 are in full swing. It is hardly surprising that the controversy over the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (VVPATs) is also at its peak.
There is a well-documented history of EVM controversy. After all, every political party has raised doubts about the machines when in opposition. But when they come to power through the same machines, doubts are not put to rest. Only we have new accusers and the controversy continues.
In 2011, the Election Commission (EC) got a rare opportunity to test the relative strength of EVMs and ballot papers. It was to conduct bypolls in 12 seats of Andhra Pradesh assembly. These seats had fallen vacant in the wake of mass resignations in the heat of the Telangana agitation. Polls were conducted in half the constituencies using ballot papers because of a clever ploy.
Chandrababu Naidu ensured that the number of candidates in a number of constituencies was more than 64 – which is the maximum limit the EVMs could handle. And what was the conclusion? While the results from the machines came out in four hours, the paper ballots took over forty hours. Adding to that, in the seats where polls were conducted with ballot papers, thousands of invalid votes were found. The results from both the systems were exactly the same.
This debate should have ended way back in 2010 when the Commission called an all-party meeting to understand concerns of the political parties on the matter. It was unanimously recommended that VVPATs be adopted as the final remedy, and we promptly accepted it. The two factories which manufacture EVMs were asked to develop VVPATs. An independent committee of professors of five different IITs was requested to monitor every aspect of the process.
A series of trials were held, followed by two full-day election simulations in five cities with varying climatic conditions – namely Cherrapunji, Delhi, Jaisalmer, Leh, Thiruvananthapuram, in July 2011 and again in 2012 in the same month. Only after the VVPATs passed all the rigorous tests of technology and climatic endurance, were they deployed successfully in 20,000 polling booths. As manufacturing progressed, all constituencies were equipped with VVPATs.
In 2013, the Supreme Court lauded the Commission’s decision and directed the government to release adequate funds so that VVPATs can be procured for use in all the booths in the 2019 elections. As the machines kept coming in, these were randomly deployed. Since 2017, all assembly elections are held with EVMs which are attached with VVPATs. As per the present norms, slips generated by one VVPAT in each assembly constituency are counted. Of the 1,500 machines thus counted, not a single mismatch has been found.
The Opposition parties have demanded that half of the total slips should be cross-checked. As many as 23 Opposition parties have also moved the Apex Court demanding the same. A group of 73 retired bureaucrats and diplomats have written to the EC on the matter, demanding an appropriate audit of votes cast in the 2019 election. To quote the central premise of the letter, “The real issue today is not about EVMs vs paper ballots, rather it is about EVMs with perfunctory VVPAT audits vs. EVMs with proper VVPAT audit.”
The letter highlighted the urgent need for a statistically sound sample size “With 99.9 per cent reliability, in a suitably defined population.” The EC sought the advice of the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, on an appropriate sample size that would ensure 99.99 per cent public satisfaction. The much-awaited report has finally been submitted to the EC according to the latest reports and is being examined.
Meanwhile, when the case came up before SC, the Chief Justice asked the Election Commission why the sample size should not be increased. EC has apparently submitted that the experts of ISI have endorsed the current sample of one VVPAT per assembly constituency. On the other hand, the sample size proposed by the political parties would delay the results by six days. All eyes are now on the SC where the case would come up next week.
I would also like to venture a more out of the box alternative.
Let the top two runners up in the constituency choose any two VVPAT machines that they would like to be counted as they have the highest stake in the results. An appropriate analogy is that of the game of cricket in which two referrals are allowed for each team. This is called the Decision Review System, and ever since its introduction, the violent disputes about the controversial decisions taken by the umpire have disappeared. This could serve to do away with a large random sample being demanded at present, as only four machines per assembly would have to be counted to ensure public faith in the system.
EVMs, equipped with VVPATs, are the most dependable arrangement. With only a few weeks to go for the counting, the Commission or the Supreme Court must clinch the debate without any further delay.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)