On Saturday, when the results to the Uttar Pradesh elections came in, the biggest loser was arguably the Bahujan Samaj Party. Winning just 19 seats – less than 5% of the state’s 403 constituencies – this was an abysmal performance for a party that has been in power in the state multiple times, most recently till 2012.

In response, party chief Mayawati alleged that the election had been rigged, by hacking into the electronic voting machines used to count votes so to skew the results in the favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party. While questions about reliability of EVMs have existed for some time now, alleging the rigging of a major election is unprecedented.

Consider the claim

While the Election Commission of India and indeed, much of the media, was dismissive of the claim, allegations such as these – even if proven false – can be harmful for Indian democracy. The very premise of a democracy and of peaceful transfer of power rests on the assumption that every participant agrees that the game is fair.

Moreover, Mayawati, even now, is a major player. In this election, she had the second largest vote share (22.2%) after the BJP and polled more than 19 million votes – which is more than the entire electorate of Australia.

Mayawati is not the only leader to have raised fears of EVM rigging. Ironically, the national spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party GVL Narasimha Rao wrote a book on the topic, Democracy at Risk, which argues that electronic voting mechanisms are not transparent and accountable.

Bharatiya Janata Party Rajya Sabhya member Subramanian Swamy raised allegation of EVM fraud before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

A range of other parties have also raised doubts about EVMs. On Wednesday, Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal, whose party was routed in the Punjab elections, alleged that 20%-25% of the votes cast for the AAP may have been transferred to the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance in the state.

Scepticism about electronic voting methods is not limited to India. Doubts about digital voting methods are so widespread that almost all developed countries shun it, preferring to use analogue methods of franchise enumeration instead.

Rare animal

The use of electronic machines to record votes is quite rare in the West. In the United States, for example, only five states – out of 50 – solely depend on direct recording electronic machines (as their EVMs are called) exclusively to collect votes. The rest of the states have either paper ballots or an accompanying paper trail.

The use of electronic voting systems is even scarcer in Europe, where only France, Belgium and Estonia allow votes to be cast digitally. In fact, many American states and European countries went back to paper balloting after finding that machines such as EVMs can be easily hacked into and manipulated or, at the very least, can be inaccurate.

Hacking threat

The US started using electronic machines in a significant way in 2002. Initially, state authorities rushed to adopt them and replace the cumbersome paper methods. Unfortunately, almost simultaneously, computer experts started to show how vulnerable these machines were to hacking.

In case of the particular brand, Diebold, a research team led by John Hopkins University professor Aviel Rubin found that “voters, without any insider privileges, can cast unlimited votes without being detected by any mechanisms within the voting terminal software.”

An Xkcd webcomic on how vulnerable electronic voting machines are.
An Xkcd webcomic on how vulnerable electronic voting machines are.

Tests such as these led to panic among politicians. California state, for example, banned the Diebold TSX machine.

In 2006, Maryland Governor Robert L Ehrlich, Jr pulled a Mayawati, appealing to his own state’s voters to post their votes by absentee ballot instead of using the state’s buggy electronic voting machines. Ironically, just four years back Ehrlich had been a big EVM proponent.

In Virginia state, the authorities removed 3,000 voting machines of a particular brand in 2015 after it was established that hacking them was rather easy. In one test, investigators cracked open a database in 18 seconds. However, whether these machines were actually hacked in an actual election is something we will never know, since there was no way to audit their results.

Europe in the same boat

Across the Atlantic Ocean, in the Netherlands, the fall from grace of EVMs was even more sudden. The country was an electronic voting machine pioneer. By the late 1990s, 95% of Dutch voters were using the machines to cast their ballot. However, by 2006, activities had raised alarm bells about the safety of these machines and the country decided to re-evaluate the system. In one news report, experts were able to replace a memory chip in the voting machine in less than five minutes that allowed them to manipulate the results of an election.

Embarrassed by this, the Dutch government moved fast and banned the use of electronic voting machines, going back to the good old – and secure – days of paper ballots.

In Germany, a court struck down the use of electronic voting machines, arguing that the process was not transparent enough at present and a copy of votes need be recorded in a way besides electronic storage. “The very wide-reaching effect of possible errors of the voting machines or of deliberate electoral fraud make special precautions necessary in order to safeguard the principle of the public nature of elections,” the court argued.

In fact, having a paper trail accompanying the electronic voting process, which confirms that the votes have been cast correctly, is a solution used by many states in the US too. This also allows a post-election audit, where electronically counted votes can be tallied against paper records.

While a range of experts agree that this is one of the best ways to check EVM fraud, the method does not yet exist in India. However, it is in the works and even the Supreme Court has stressed the need for a Vote Verifier Paper Audit Trail and ordered the Election Commission to have it in place by 2019.