All political parties will be given the opportunity to demonstrate that electronic voting machines used in the recent assembly elections could have been tampered with, the Election Commission of India announced on Friday.
But it isn’t clear whether the event will be a hackathon.
“The Commission will hold a challenge and offer opportunity to political parties to demonstrate that EVMs used in the recently concluded Assembly elections were tampered [with] or EVMs can be tampered [with] even under the laid down Technical and Administrative safeguards,” Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi said at an all-party meeting his organisation had convened. “Commission assures the political parties that their concerns and apprehensions regarding EVMs have been taken note of and would be duly considered and addressed through [the] forthcoming challenge and further actions.”
Ever since Opposition parties alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s massive victory in the Uttar Pradesh elections in March could have been the result of EVMs being rigged, the Election Commission has been under pressure to allow hackers access to these machines to demonstrate how that this was actually possible.
Finding the right word
Friday’s meeting, which was attended by seven national parties and 35 regional parties, stretched on for around seven-and-a-half-hours and so did the deliberations on how exactly parties could take a crack at proving that the EVMs were indeed fallible.
The first point of disagreement was about the use of the term “hackathon”. To computer geeks, a hackathon is an event at which a large number of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming.
In April, newsreports emerged that the Election Commission had announced some sort of an open challenge for political parties to hack its EVM systems. The announcement was not official and mostly attributed to unidentified sources. It wasn’t long before this challenge was being referred to in the media as a hackathon.
Among the political parties alleging EVM rigging, the Aam Aadmi Party was perhaps the most vociferous. On Tuesday, AAP conducted a demonstration with a prototype EVM in the Delhi Assembly claiming to show how poll machines could be tampered with. The Election Commission said that AAP’s demonstration did not hold water because the party only used a prototype – not the sort of EVMs that are actually used in polls.
At Friday’s meeting, the Election Commission officers strongly disapproved of the term hackathon on technical grounds. “EC insisted that the term hacking does not even apply to EVMs,” said Congress supporter Tehseen Poonawala. “This led to another debate. We then asked the EC to define hacking for the matter. Hacking is a very vague term so the EC should rather clarify on it.”
No fixed date
By lunchtime, the Election Commission was ready to “open its floor for some sort of a test of EVMs by the end of the month, though the date was not fixed”, said senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Nilotpal Basu.
Post lunch there was a new subject to argue about – the method of the test. While some political parties wanted the Election Commission to give them their EVM machines and then let them try hacking them, the Commission wanted to do this another way. “EC insisted on providing EVMs from the recently held Assembly Polls and then let the participants identify if they were rigged,” Poonawala said. “But it does not work that way. If the EC is confident, they should rather give us the machines and let us show if we can tamper with those machines. The method still needs clarity.”
When the meeting was over, AAP leader Manish Sisodia told journalists that he was not convinced that this was the right way to to about things. He said that the Election Commssion has rejected the idea of a hackathon. “We have shown how EVM tampering can happen and we can show it again,” he said. “Just give us the machines and let us prove it.”