The great EVM debate: Convincing the losers that they lost

It's not about whether recent elections were rigged, as alleged. It is about a transparent mechanism for determining the truth.

Accusations about the tampering of Electronic Voting Machines continue to be in news.

India’s EVMs have been carefully designed to avoid some of the well-known security problems with electronic voting machines in the West. But it is difficult to agree with Former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi’s assertion that all the Election Commission needs to do is double down and more forcefully insist that the EVMs are secure because that is what they believe.

It is not about what insiders trust to be true about voting technology, but about what has been demonstrated to be true to the public about a particular election. Besides, no EVM, including the Indian ones, can be assumed to be invulnerable to a determined attacker. While India’s EVM design makes it harder to implement large-scale attacks, all EVMs do not have to be rigged. Machines judiciously chosen in constituencies that are more favorable to rigging, with the collusion of local individuals, after the random allocation described by Quraishi, could be sufficient.

Additionally, in a country with a very efficient counterfeit mafia, we cannot expect that printed paper seals will always expose tampering efforts, because they can be replaced with counterfeit ones.

Finally, a computer chip can be smart enough to know when it is being tested. For example, Volkswagen recently pleaded guilty to having software whose purpose was to detect that the car was being tested, so it could behave as expected and emit fewer pollutants. On the other hand, during regular use, it produced greater emissions. So testing machines at random is not enough to know whether they can be trusted to perform as expected during the real election, when they are not being tested. It thus stands to reason that the losing parties would be suspicious of an election outcome that relies solely on the electronic mechanism, which is not transparent to the voter.

When an electorate has reasonable and genuine concerns that an election could have been rigged – whether or not it was – you have a situation that is not conducive to a healthy democracy. We now have losers with concerns that the election was rigged, winners who would rather not know whether it was, and voters without an independent mechanism for determining the truth.

This has happened before: the Congress dismissed reports of security vulnerabilities when it won, and the BJP loudly voiced its concerns. Now, the shoe is on the other foot. In both cases the Indian voter has been left in a state of genuine uncertainty.

Evidence-based elections

Experts in voting system security propose evidence-based elections that are not vulnerable to problems, known or unknown, in the technology. Technology can be tested in order to reduce the likelihood of problems during use. However, the only way to ensure that the technology performed correctly is to examine the evidence to determine if it did.

For EVMs, the evidence would be in the form of a voter-verified paper audit trail or VVPAT, which records each vote on paper and allows the voter to verify the paper record before the vote is cast electronically.

Numerous countries have chosen to use paper in some form to record votes: 70% of the votes in the 2016 US election had a paper record. Neither Britain nor Germany use electronic voting for general elections. France has chosen to hand count its upcoming election; the Netherlands chose to hand count the most recent one.

Beyond paper trails

It is not sufficient to produce a paper record if it is going to be locked up, never to be seen again. The VVPAT should be stored securely, separate from the EVMs, and audited publicly after the election to determine that it is consistent with the declared election outcome. The audit can be very efficient, as it need not count each and every vote. A good audit polls votes at random and determines that the statistical properties of the votes it looks at are consistent with the election outcome.

Going beyond what is required by a Supreme Court order for a paper trail, the Election Commission had promised that all India’s EVMs will produce such a VVPAT for the 2019 general election. This is, however, not enough. The VVPAT should be audited to ensure that the election outcome is correct, and laws and procedures should be put in place for strong and transparent audits.

Quraishi asserts that the issue is not that electronic voting machines have been demonstrated to be insecure, but that the process with paper is more transparent. While security experts might differ with this interpretation of their work demonstrating security problems, everyone does agree that the use of paper greatly enhances transparency. In the execution of an election, transparency is the most important goal. The use of electronics obscures the process to the extent that any attempts to change the outcome would be very hard to detect. Attempts to change the election outcome would be detected in a transparent process, and transparency becomes the strongest part of the security arsenal.

Election audit

Any constituencies with a securely stored VVPAT should be audited for the recent elections. Future elections should ensure a paper trail that is verified by the voter. If EVMs with VVPAT are not available, paper ballots should be used, whether scanned and counted by the scanner, or hand counted. If the votes are hand counted, the counting should be public: observers should be able to view the ballot and note how it was counted. If the votes are scanned with an optical scanner which counts votes, the count should be audited, again in a transparent and public process. The paper trail should be stored securely till it is counted or audited. While there are challenges to securing the paper trail as well, an adversary intending to change election outcome would need to change both records in a consistent manner.

Election officials the world over resist audits because it increases their workload and because they trust the systems they have approved and/or used. One does not have to like the audit process, but one cannot claim free and fair elections without transparency.

Brush your teeth. Eat your bhindi. Audit your elections.

The Election Commission has, time and again, demonstrated itself as independent and up to the task of serving voters and democracy, even when this has required great effort. India’s democratic tradition, and its voters – who turn out in large numbers election after election, showing unmatched enthusiasm for, and faith in, democracy – deserve no less.

Poorvi L Vora is Professor of Computer Science at The George Washington University, Washington DC, USA.

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