By 10 am on Saturday, delegations of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Nationalist Congress Party had reached the office of the Election Commission of India on Ashoka Road in New Delhi. They were the only two parties to have enrolled for the poll panel’s electronic voting machine challenge – giving participants an opportunity to prove that the devices can be hacked, as alleged by various Opposition parties in the wake of the February-March Assembly elections in five states.

By 12 pm, no attempt had been made to rig the machines and eventually, what started off as a challenge smoothly transformed into a demonstration of the functionalities of electronic voting machines. The Election Commission later issued a release saying both parties did not wish to participate in a challenge and simply sought to understand how the devices work.

At around the same time, in another part of the city, the conference hall of the Aam Aadmi Party office teemed with media persons waiting eagerly for a parallel electronic voting machine challenge to commence. The party had refused to participate in the Election Commission event after its request for an “open hackathon” with full physical access to the machines was turned down. In response, it had earlier this week announced its own challenge that would coincide with that of the poll panel.

The Aam Aadmi Party has been vociferous in its complaints of voting machines being rigged following its defeat in the Punjab and Goa elections.

However, there was no action to be witnessed at its office too on Saturday as Delhi MLA Saurabh Bharadwaj clarified that the party had chosen to only launch its challenge that day, not conduct it. And the challenge, as it turns out, will not be a hackathon, as it was earlier being called. From what Bhardwaj said at the press conference, it will focus more on proving the “futility” of the Election Commission’s electronic voting machine challenge rather than exposing the vulnerability of the devices and the ways in which they can be tampered with.

“The challenge is open to all,” the Aam Aadmi Party MLA said. “We invite all political parties, Bharat Electronics, Electronic Corporation of India and even the Election Commission to come with their experts and take up the challenge.”

The voting machines used in India are devised and designed by the Election Commission in collaboration with two public sector undertakings – the Bengaluru-based Bharat Electronics Limited and Hyderabad-based Electronic Corporation of India Limited.

For the challenge, the party will use the same electronic voting machine prototype that Bharadwaj had used during a live demonstration of rigging in the Delhi Assembly in May. The Election Commission had rejected the prototype, calling it a “lookalike”.

Not a hackathon

Ever since Opposition parties alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide victory in the Uttar Pradesh polls could have been the result of machines being rigged, the Election Commission has been under pressure to give hackers access to these devices to see if this could indeed be done.

On May 12, the commission held an all-party meeting to discuss the matter and the deliberations went in the direction of holding an electronic voting machine challenge. While talk of an open challenge had been on the table for a while, there had been no consensus so far on its methodology or protocol. At the end of the meeting, Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi chose to call the challenge “an opportunity to political parties to demonstrate that EVMs used in the recently concluded Assembly elections were tampered [with] or can be tampered [with] even under the laid down technical and administrative safeguards”, thus tactically avoiding calling it a hackathon.

Aam Aadmi Party MLA Saurabh Bharadwaj demonstrates how an electronic voting machine can be manipulated in the Delhi Assembly in May. (Credit: PTI)

AAP’s challenge to poll panel

As far as a hackathon is concerned, the Aam Aadmi Party’s challenge is also not going to be one.

“We will let participants press any button they want to or use bluetooth or any remote device to prove the machine can be tampered with,” Bharadwaj said. “But we will not allow them to manipulate the internal circuitry, just the way the EC [Election Commission] has laid down rules for its challenge.”

He explained why: “If participants succeed in tampering [with] the machine, it shall prove that tampering of EVMs is possible. And if they fail, it shall prove the futility of the EC’s challenge. Because at the end of the day, it is the same machine that we had once tampered [with].”

He went on to say that the Election Commission’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of the electronic voting machine prototype used by the party did not affect its parallel challenge. “Because what we are trying to prove here is that a tamperable machine can be visibly proved non-tamperable by the method that the EC has chosen,” he added.

Aam Aadmi Party officials said their challenge is likely to be conducted next week, for which the party has provided a link in its website for those who wish to enrol. However, no enrolment deadline has been fixed yet.