Photograph of Anil Chawla

Reliability of Electronic Voting Machines

Author - Anil Chawla


Recent landslide victory of BJP in Uttar Pradesh has surprised everyone and many parties have expressed doubts about electronic voting machines (EVM's). Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi, has demanded return to paper ballots. Some other politicians have also made similar demands. I do not agree with Arvind Kejriwal and others who are making all sorts of wild accusations. Nevertheless, I believe that Election Commission of India needs to do more than merely make loud assertions about reliability of EVM's. Doubts about EVM's have been expressed by many politicians of all hues during the past decade. Such doubts, about something so fundamental to our electoral system, need to be addressed in a more pro-active manner. This is essential to retain the country's faith in democracy.

Electronic Voting Machine

In January 2009, I along with a friend had issued a Notice to Election Commission of India and followed it up with a Public Interest Writ Petition before High Court of Madhya Pradesh. The friend is now a leader of BJP. I shall not embarrass him and his party by naming him. Our petition was the first one to be admitted in any high court of the country on the subject of EVM's. Many others (including Dr. Subramanian Swamy) used the contents of our petition to move their own petitions before different high courts. Our petition can be referred at http://www.indialegalhelp.com/files/evmpetition.pdf

We had raised serious doubts about reliability and accuracy of EVM's. We did not demand scraping of EVM's. We did not demand return to paper ballots. We only wanted EVM's to be made more reliable and trustworthy. Our prayers to the Honourable High Court requested for the following:

  1. Direction that the EVM's be tested, verified and audited by competent independent agency having expertise in such evaluation;

  2. Direction for thorough examination of hackability and tamper-proofness of EVM's by competent independent agency having expertise in such evaluation;

  3. Direction for thorough examination of systems, procedures, training and all matters related to the use of EVM's in polling booths focusing in particular on possibilities of malicious damage; and that this examination be carried out by competent independent agency having expertise in such examination;

  4. Direction directing Election Commission to provide for Voter-verifiable Audit Trail in all elections where EVM's are used.

Eight years after the Petition, I am glad to note that Election Commission of India (and Honourable Supreme Court) have accepted our demand for Voter-verifiable Audit Trail but has failed to satisfy the nation on other counts. Let me explain what our case was.

We had submitted with our petition affidavits from eleven (11) voters of a particular booth who all stated on oath that they had voted for a particular candidate (say Mr. X). Election results showed that Mr. X had received only three (3) votes from the said booth. To any rational human being, this would constitute a clear proof of something being wrong with EVM's, but not for Election Commission which continues to parrot examination and approval by some expert committee. Science is about accepting evidence and conducting tests, experiments etc. But, for the wise men at Election Commission of India, science is a rubber stamp of approval by some haloed men and women sitting in glorious institutions.

As an engineer I believe in machines but I also believe that machines are inherently fallible, inaccurate and given to misbehaving – often due to mistakes of humans who handle them and at other times for other reasons. We, engineers, strive to constantly improve and innovate. An engineer can never believe that a machine is perfect and needs no further improvement - just what Election Commission has been telling India repeatedly.

It seems reasonable that a machine which is to decide the fate of a billion persons should be tested thoroughly and in a transparent manner. Let there be a thousand machines, each receiving a thousand random votes duly recorded by some method other than the machines. That would make a total of one million votes. If the voting results from machines do not show a single error in one million votes with the experiment repeated ten times, the country's confidence in the EVM's will increase enormously.

The above experiment of one million votes should be repeated with the following events occurring prior to voting and also post-voting (before counting) - (a) Dropping the machines one-by-one from height of 2m on a hard surface (b) Subjecting the machines to strong vibrations for 30 minutes (c) Subjecting the machines to a temperature of 50 degree Celsius (d) Subjecting the machines one-by-one to a strong magnetic field (e) Subjecting the machines one-by-one to a strong electrical field. If the machines constantly deliver zero error results every one million votes after all the five shocks delivered pre and post voting, the machines will indeed be the world's most reliable and sturdy machines just like the Election Commission wants us to believe them to be.

Reliability, ruggedness and sturdiness are no guarantee against hackers. Election Commission wants us to believe that just because EVM's have no internet connection, the machines are not hackable. This is plainly ridiculous. Absence of internet connection does create hurdles for a hacker. The first challenge that the hacker will need to overcome is to establish some sort of signal communication with the internal parts of the EVM. It may need planting of a chip in the EVM or may be done some other way. Nevertheless, saying that it is impossible to set up signal communication between an EVM and an external device is just the way an engineering professor would have claimed fifty years ago that a computer would always need a large room to set up and it could never be set up in a pocket-sized device. Today's mobile phones are far more powerful computers than the massive mainframe computers at the best institutions fifty years ago. Technology is constantly evolving and what seems improbable today may become common place tomorrow. Hackability of an EVM is also a function of the technology as it exists from time to time. Hackers and their technologies are constantly growing in competence and sophistication. Claiming something is impossible to hack shows nothing more than ignorance of the nature of hacking technology.

Unfortunately for Indian democracy, Election Commission of India has a bureaucratic non-technical attitude to hacking. In response to our notice and writ petition, they invited us to their office to demonstrate hacking or tampering of an EVM. We have no claims to be hackers. But, if we were indeed skilled hackers, would we have gone to Election Commission to demonstrate our skills at the crime or would we have used our criminal skills to indulge in the crime and profit from it. It is like a manufacturer of safe vaults for banks claiming that its vaults are safe on the basis that in the past three decades no one has walked into its factory and opened a vault in front of cameras. A thief or safe-breaker operates in the dark and not in front of flash lights of cameras. Actually, I am also sure that if I had indeed gone to Election Commission and hacked the EVM in front of Commission officials, they would have arrested me and prosecuted me for all sorts of crimes. Election Commission has indeed behaved in that manner whenever someone has tried to show fallibility of EVM's.

In essence, Election Commission has behaved like the big bully who claims to be clean because no one has ever provided evidence against his innocence even while he has been inviting all and sundry to come to his house to prove his guilt at the risk of being beaten blue and black by his goons. Election Commission needs to change this attitude and become more welcoming to ethical hackers. The Commission needs to encourage ethical hackers to find faults, luring them with attractive rewards and most importantly providing them immunity against prosecution while binding them to strict confidentiality. Election Commission may need to partner with reputed academic / research institutions to pro-actively identify vulnerabilities of the EVM eco-system. An ivory tower attitude of assuming to be incorruptible and infallible is not the right attitude and it only makes doubts about EVM's stronger.

VVPAT

Now let us look at the voter verifiable paper trail introduced by the Election Commission in the new EVM's. No doubt, this is a welcome step. The original idea was that the EVM generates a slip with the name and symbol of candidate voted for printed on it. Voter is supposed to verify the slip and put the slip in a ballot box. In the new EVM's there is a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail system (VVPAT) unit which enables the voter to see the printed slip before the slip moves into a box. In the VVPAT system introduced with the new EVM's the protest against a faulty printing of slip involves giving a written declaration. The process is slightly cumbersome and unless the voters are well aware of their rights the whole concept of VVPAT may come to naught. VVPAT has so far been used in 255 assembly constituencies and nine parliamentary constituencies. It is proposed to be used in all constituencies in 2019 general elections.

Let us assume that VVPAT is foolproof because of verification by the voter. If this is indeed the case, it gives a unique opportunity to test the EVM’s in real life. Election Commission could have easily made it mandatory to count paper slips in all constituencies where EVM's are used as part of the roll-out process. If EVM's are as foolproof as claimed, the paper trail generated by VVPAT would have yielded the same result as the electronic records from EVM's. That would have convinced everyone about the reliability and infallibility of EVM's.

The issue of reliability of EVM's is not a political one. Political leaders and parties raise the issue of EVM's when it suits them. Often they muddy the water by going overboard in their criticism. For them issue of EVM's is a convenient scapegoat for their failures. It is not surprising that there was a time when BJP leaders were shouting against EVM's and today when BJP is winning many non-BJP leaders are making the same noises. The insincerity of Indian political leaders is too well known and needs no comment. Electoral system and EVM's are too important to our country's democracy to be left at the mercy of political leaders. Election Commission of India needs to do much more than just flaunt a two decades old expert committee to strengthen the country's faith in EVM's. And we, the citizens of India, need to do more to push Election Commission to come clean on EVM's.

ANIL CHAWLA
19 March 2017

Postscript

King, Royal Treasure and Smart Thief

Author - Anil Chawla

Once upon a time, there was a king who had huge amounts of gold, precious stones, diamonds and ornaments in his royal treasure. The king used to keep the royal treasure in a room which was secured by a lock made by the best locksmith of his kingdom. The king as well as the locksmith used to believe that no one could open the lock without its unique key which the king used to always keep with him.

There was a thief in the kingdom who was very smart and intelligent. He was the only one on earth who knew how to open the royal treasure's lock without its unique key. The thief used to break into the royal treasure once every month. After breaking in, he would take just five jewels or ornaments and leave the rest untouched. The thief was smart enough to know that making a big theft was likely to raise alarm and be dangerous.

For many months, no one even noticed the recurring thefts. There were murmurs and rumors about the thefts, but the royal media and all courtiers dismissed it as mischievous propaganda by disgruntled elements. Sometime later, the royal treasurer reported difference in physical verification and book stocks of royal treasure's inventory. This was dismissed as routine accounting errors not worthy of any attention.

In the meanwhile the rich lifestyle of the thief was leading to wagging tongues in the kingdom. The thief had stopped doing any other thefts, so there were no reports against him and now he was seen as a respectable rich man. But people who knew him, knew better and this was fueling lot of loose talk.

The rumors and loose talk reached the king's ears. The king consulted his locksmith and also some other locksmiths. Technical advice given to the king was that the lock was unbreakable and there was no known human being who could open the lock without the unique key. The king made a grand declaration about experts putting to rest all doubts about the secure lock. The king and the experts challenged anyone and everyone in the kingdom to come forth and open the lock without its secure key.

One joker made a duplicate lock, brought it to the king's court and demonstrated how the duplicate lock could be opened without the secure key. The king, all the locksmiths and the king's courtiers ridiculed and made fun of the joker. Great fun was had by all.

In the midst of all this the smart thief continued to live a good life.

Last heard of, the king and locksmith continued to believe that the lock was absolutely secure and unbreakable. But, bowing to the public pressure, they agreed to replace the lock with a more secure lock. When people last saw the thief, there was a smile on his face.

Note: The above story is purely fictional and has nothing whatsoever to do with Election Commission of India and Electronic Voting Machines.

ANIL CHAWLA
13 May 2017



Please write to me your comments about the above article.
samarthbharatparty@gmail.com




ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer and a lawyer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a legal and management consultant by profession.


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