Explained: EVM efficacy and debate around VVPATs

Updated: March 28, 2019 1:49:50 AM

Will the SC factor in missing parameters?

EVM, Lok Sabha elections 2019, VVPAT, VVPAT system,  Election Commission, VVPAT slips, bjp, EVM tamperingThe first is akin to birth of triplets or twins or as common as child born with six fingers.

Mohd Haleem Khan

A lot of water has flown down the Ganges, to use the cliché, since the human race stopped agonising over the binary: God exists; God does not exist! With the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT)-fitted EVMs now on way to become new normal in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections, one may safely presume that the deafening and cacophonous noise whether EVMs are tamper-proof may soon become yesterday’s political memes.

The book ‘Democracy at Risk! Can we trust our Electronic Voting Machines?’ published in 2010 and written by BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao carried a foreword by LK Advani. “I personally regard it significant that Germany, technologically, one of the most advanced countries of the world, has become so wary of EVMs as to ban their use altogether. Many states in the USA have mandated that EVMs can be used only if they have a paper back up.” Advani wrote. “…I think the Election Commission would be strengthening democracy if it contemplates similar…” In his book, Rao stated that “the distrust among political leaders of all hues in voting machines is so high that most losers are wondering if they had been unfairly defeated in polls. It is about time India shunned paperless voting to make its election outcomes verifiable and auditable.” This issue was subsequently raised in Parliament and Opposition parties, including the BJP, demanded an all-party meet to thrash out the issue. “We will urge the government to call an all-party meeting,” said then leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley. On a PIL filed by BJP Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy, the Supreme Court, in October 2013, directed the Election Commission to introduce the VVPAT system in a phased manner so as to implement it fully by 2019.

Indian polity as a byproduct has evolved what one may euphemistically call Indian version of bipartisanship. The UPA introduced Aadhaar cards in 2009. The BJP then harangued variously and voraciously. Now in power, the same BJP has become its flag-bearer. The jinn of EVM-tampering, unleashed by the BJP, since have found the most fertile ground in the Opposition’s backyards. To what extent the paper trail must be audited to instil the confidence that EVMs are not being tampered with has emerged as an avenue for brinkmanship afresh.

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The Manual on Electronic Voting Machine and VVPAT, 2018, provides for mandatory verification of VVPAT paper slips of randomly selected 01 (one) polling station per assembly segment. On March 22, 2019, the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) presented its report titled ‘Random Sampling For Testing of EVMs via VVPAT Slip Verification’. It may be recalled that in view of the varying demands for enhanced percentage of VVPAT slip count during elections in the country, the Commission engaged the ISI to systematically analyse and scientifically examine the issue of VVPAT slip verification with electronic count of EVMs and to arrive at mathematically-sound, statistically-robust and practically-cogent solutions to the issue.

The brinkmanship has also reached the Supreme Court and 21 Opposition leaders are seeking the Court’s intervention to enhance VVPAT slip-based audit/verification to 50% of the voting machines in each assembly constituency. The Supreme Court has, to quote the Business Standard news of March 26, favoured increasing the random physical verification of VVPAT slips in the upcoming elections. Notwithstanding the signals emanating from the Court, logically speaking, the fallibility of EVM’s can be categorised into:

1. Those arising from probabilistic fluctuations/technological perturbations, and

2. Antagonistic human manipulation/tampering/mischief.

The first is akin to birth of triplets or twins or as common as child born with six fingers. To make it foolproof against this category of fallibility, one will need space satellite technology/accuracy. Theoretically speaking, even 100% audit of VVPAT slips, hardly a cost-effective and efficacious option, may not reduce it to zero. One should not forget: more technology-intensive/theoretical an option, more opacity it introduces. Inclusion of a polling station randomly for VVPAT slip audit may further aggravate the scope for political brinkmanship. It may open new vistas for political witch-hunt. At cutting-edge level, the gullibility of Indian voter and word of mouth rumour-mongering with regard to political leanings of local officers abound.

The emotional upsurge to sustain/enhance the Indian elections image is so consuming that implications on public finances seldom find a place in discussions of dos and don’ts for incrementally enhancing the credibility of process. Since 1952, the Lok Sabha election expanses have ballooned from Rs 10.45 crore to Rs 1,300 crore in 2004—a whopping 130 times during the course of 14 elections! In fact, 2014 was the most expensive Lok Sabha election entailing a cost of Rs 3,426 crore to the national exchequer, a jump of 131% over the expenses incurred in 2009. Having deployed VVPAT-fitted EVMs, the clamour for VVPAT slip-based audit in more and more numbers is bound to become louder unless the selection for audit sample is informed by the dictum ‘Keep it straight and simple: KISS’. One must eschew being bogged down into cost and time consuming academics of finding a statistically-desirable sample size to root out/minimise the chances of election results getting manipulated by EVM tampering. Keep it simple. Provide for letting the EVM counting be complete as if machines are 100% tamper-proof. Once the highest voted candidate and the one trailing him are identified, both should be asked to give the list of enough polling stations they will like to get verified with the VVPAT slip so as to encompass 2-5% of polling machines.

This mechanism will prove superior to statistically-determined random sample as it limits VVPAT slip verification to 10%, thus putting a sensible brake on the ballooning costs of election process. Secondly, candidates know their polling station-wise strengths and weaknesses. Since the names of the polling stations going through VVPAT slip audit is given by the two candidates who emerged as number one and two in machine-based counting, it is more likely to bring forth external manipulation, if any. In all constituencies where this 10% recount generates discrepancies, all polling machines in that assembly segment be subjected to VVPAT slip audit. If the difference is comparable to victory margin, re-poll should be mandated. Factoring in the informal/intuitive ground-level knowledge of the two nearest to success candidates will take away the wind out of the political wild goose hunt. It shall add to the glory of our election process. Amen!

The author retired as secretary to the government of India, ministry of finance. Views are personal

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