Reports of malfunctioning VVPATs in the recently concluded bye-polls for parliament and state assemblies have once again raised questions about the credibility of EVMs. In what is being seen as a huge setback, re-polls had to take place in 73 booths in Kairana in UP, 43 in Maharashtra, and one seat in Nagaland. Election Commission officials blamed the excessive heat for the malfunctioning of VVPATs, which is surprising because when trials were held for the machines, they were subjected to all kinds of weather conditions. From the coastal conditions in Kerala to the excessive heat in Jaisalmer and the extreme winter in Leh, VVPATs have survived extreme weather conditions, and any kind of malfunctioning was duly noticed and rectified by the Election Commission. The manufacturers have some explaining to do.
Let me point out two things. Firstly, it was precisely to remove doubts regarding the EVMs that VVPAT machines were introduced – to provide voters with a means to verify that their vote was cast correctly and for the audit of stored electronic results. Using these machines, voters can review a physical ballot to confirm their electronic vote. Secondly, it was the VVPAT machines that malfunctioned in the recent bye-polls, and not the EVMs. While it is true that Election Commission officials should have replaced the machines within the stipulated time frame of half an hour, this incident is hardly any reason to question the validity of EVMs.
The issue of “tamperability” of EVMs has been doing the rounds ever since they were first introduced. Every time a political party loses an election, it blames the machine. However, none of them has been able to prove their allegations against the credibility of EVMs, and neither do they apologise when they win the elections where the same EVMs have been used. All that this manages to do, however, is shake the trust of people in the system. Many critics, giving the example of Germany, say that EVMs have been declared illegal by the German Supreme Court.
I would, however, like to point out that the German court has not declared EVMs illegal because any fault was found with the technology, but because the German Constitution specifically mentions that voting needs to be transparent. Based on the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, and the principle that all essential steps in the elections are subject to public examinability, the court said: “When electronic voting machines are deployed, it must be possible for the citizen to check the essential steps in the election act and in the ascertainment of the results reliably and without special expert knowledge.”
We must remember that our own Supreme Court had given a similar judgment 27 years before its German counterpart, in 1982, saying that the Representation of the People Act mentions only ballot paper and not EVM. The Representation of the People Act, 1951 was then amended to allow for electronic voting. The point was a legal one, and there was no question about the effectiveness of the technology, either in the case of Germany or India.
Critics often also cite the examples of a few European nations, including the Netherlands and Italy, who have withdrawn the machine. However, they fail to mention that all the machines in these two nations were made by the same Dutch company. Like any machinery, EVMs are of different varieties and technologies. Failure of one does not imply faultiness in all the others. In fact, if EVMs were so prone to manipulation, we would have never seen a change of regime in the country!
EVMs make the election process transparent. Counting is more efficient, and the results can be declared within three to four hours of an election instead of the traditional 30 to 40 hours, when votes are counted manually.
Further, EVMs have also ended the problem of invalid votes. The machines are not connected to any external sources whatsoever; therefore, there is neither any danger of data leak nor of tampering. Along with their technical security, their custodial security along their journey from the factories to the polling booths is equally important. At no stage do the machines go into private hands. The Election Commission has to ensure that no lapse ever takes place on this account. The VVPAT machines further reinforce the credibility of the EVMs. By allowing for verification of their respective votes, it ensures that there is no scope for doubt in the minds of the voters.
In fact, in 2013, the Supreme Court appreciated the Election Commission’s initiative to introduce VVPATs and directed the government to provide adequate funds for it. The failure of the VVPATs, though unfortunate, should not shake the faith of the people in the Election Commission and in the Indian democracy. The re-polls were successfully conducted in the affected areas. The Election Commission ensures free and fair elections in the country, an absolute must for a well-functioning democracy. In case of a machine failure, the Commission has to replace the machine within half an hour.
In the instant case mentioned above, the Commission’s failure to do so within the stipulated time frame shows that its preparedness fell short somewhere. The CEC was honest enough to admit that the Commission’s “inadequately trained staff” were responsible for the malfunctioning of VVPATs. I am sanguine that a critical introspection of what went wrong and how it can be prevented in future must be underway at the Commission. I believe the Commission should be more communicative regarding EVMs and VVPATs, and constantly reassure the nation as to their legitimacy. It must immediately put to rest any doubts regarding the credibility of the machines. Technology is the future of India and not just of its democracy, and EVMs have made India a proud global leader.
Excerpted with permission from India’s Experiment with Democracy: The Life of a Nation Through Its Elections, SY Quraishi, HarperCollins India.