As per various news reports, in June 2017, the ECI arranged for an EVM-hack challenge where political parties were asked to demonstrate how the machines can be tampered with.
The opposition parties at the central level have routinely questioned electronic voting machines’ (EVMs’) immunity to tampering without offering irrefutable evidence—to be sure, the Aam Aadmi Party demonstrated how an EVM could be hacked, but that was not an EVM from the stables of the Election Commission of India (ECI). Though the Congress party maintained that senior party leader Kapil Sibal attended a London press-meet to demonstrate how an EVM could be hacked in his personal capacity, the fact is that a senior Congress leader did lend his heft to unsubstantiated claims about the EVM’s safety. It put the ECI’s non-partisanship, that is crucial to the exercise of democracy in India, under a cloud. But, all this pales in front of the Chhattisgarh government mulling over a state Cabinet sub-committee recommendation to revert to paper ballots in local-body elections. A government eying EVMs with suspicion, sans evidence of tampering, is no garden-variety damning of EVMs—an official statement of lack of trust in the machines will have much wider repercussions.
It is for the state election commission to take the final call on use of EVMs in local body elections. But, the fact is that paper ballots make it far easier to capture booths and rig elections, as the West Bengal panchayat elections last year showed. Indeed, re-polling was ordered in 568 booths in the state following reports of ballot boxes being filled by political workers rather than by voters, widespread violence and incidents of vandalism. EVMs may not help where there is vandalism and violence, but they are at least not as easy to rig as the paper ballot system is. The ECI has taken concrete steps to demonstrate the security of the EVM system. As per various news reports, in June 2017, the ECI arranged for an EVM-hack challenge where political parties were asked to demonstrate how the machines can be tampered with. Just two parties—Nationalist Congress Party and Communist Party of India (Marxist)—turned up, and even they did not participate.
ECI has also made it mandatory for every EVM to have Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), to ensure there is no tampering. Even the Supreme Court allowed for wider VVPAT verification before the general election earlier this year to assuage concerns about EVM security. Of course, many things affect the citizen’s confidence in the exercise of democratic choice in India. Voter fraud happens in many forms, from addition of bogus voters to the rolls to deletion of genuine ones. But, this is a problem that can be taken care of by linking Aadhaar to voter IDs, as this paper has argued. However, if there is an official retreat from the EVM system, as Chhattisgarh seems giving serious thought to, it will severely damage public trust in the democratic process in India without a shred of evidence. That will pave the path for the bad old days of paper-ballot-facilitated rigging to make a comeback as demands for this to be extended to all levels will be buoyed by the Chhattisgarh example.