Is there a case for a relook at EVMs?

In or­der to re­store pub­lic con­fi­dence, we need to go back to pa­per bal­lots

The Hindu - - OPED - As told to Anu­radha Raman

Ear­lier we were told — and it is prob­a­bly still the case — that elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chines (EVMs) were de­signed with­out any soft­ware in them, so that to tam­per with them you had to re­place the chip. We know that to­day it is pos­si­ble to re­place the chip if we have ac­cess to EVMs. And in a sit­u­a­tion where the ma­chines are kept in places where they are dif­fi­cult to ac­cess, it may not be pos­si­ble to tam­per with all of them but it is pos­si­ble to tam­per with some of them by re­plac­ing the chip. Hold­ing free, fair, and fast elec­tions is a corner­stone of democ­racy and is guar­an­teed by the Con­sti­tu­tion. In­tro­duc­tion of EVMs by due process of con­sul­ta­tion and con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment in the 1980s and ’90s was a step in the right di­rec­tion to fur­ther strengthen the demo­cratic process in In­dia, which is by far the largest democ­racy in the world with more than 800 mil­lion vot­ers.

In a re­cent pa­per, Sisir Deb­nath and Shamika Ravi and I looked at the im­pact of EVMs on democ­racy and de­vel­op­ment, by analysing data

Fol­low­ing elec­tion re­sults, we in­vari­ably come across re­ports of mal­func­tion­ing EVMs. On the VVPAT (voter ver­i­fi­able pa­per au­dit trail) front too, there are re­ports of mal­func­tion­ing. Also, as per the rules, pa­per bal­lots and VVPAT ma­chines are not counted un­til the Re­turn­ing Of­fi­cer asks for it. So, that is not a sat­is­fac­tory so­lu­tion ei­ther.

World over, coun­tries are mov­ing to pa­per bal­lots. Just as they are giv­ing up on nu­clear en­ergy world over, coun­tries re­alise that EVMs are prob­lem­atic too, be­cause they of more than 30 years of As­sem­bly elec­tions.

Why EVMs are im­por­tant

There were four im­por­tant find­ings. One, EVMs led to a sig­nif­i­cant de­cline in elec­toral fraud, par­tic­u­larly in po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive States such as Bi­har and Ut­tar Pradesh. In sev­eral con­stituen­cies, polling booths were rou­tinely cap­tured un­der the pa­per bal­lot sys­tem and bal­lot boxes were stuffed. As a re­sult, po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, in­stead of work­ing in the larger in­ter­est of the pub­lic, worked for the pri­vate prof­its of a carry the risk of be­ing tam­pered with. I feel the time has come for us to go back to the pa­per bal­lot.

The case of U.P.

The out­come of the re­cent Ut­tar Pradesh civic polls sug­gests that tam­per­ing could be hap­pen­ing. I am not say­ing there is con­clu­sive proof of EVM tam­per­ing, but the re­sults do raise ques­tions and doubts about a de­ci­sive vic­tory. I had tweeted that the Bharatiya Janata Party had won more in places where there were EVMs and lost more in places where pa­per bal­lots were used. The fear is

small frac­tion of peo­ple who had the great­est ca­pac­ity to com­mit fraud. In­tro­duc­ing EVMs trans­formed this. Rig­ging elec­tions be­came ex­tremely ex­pen­sive. Po­lit­i­cal lead­ers could no longer do lip ser­vice to de­vel­op­ment; they had to com­mit to pro­vid­ing pub­lic goods and ser­vices.

Two, us­ing lu­mi­nos­ity data, we found that EVMs led to a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in the pro­vi­sion of elec­tric­ity, par­tic­u­larly in States that were more prone to elec­toral vi­o­lence. Re­search has shown a very strong link be­tween lu­mi­nos­ity and growth rate, sug­gest­ing that EVMs con­tribute to de­vel­op­ment. enough for us to move to pa­per bal­lots. There are fears es­pe­cially in the con­text of ma­jori­tar­ian gov­ern­ments, and es­pe­cially with re­gard to this gov­ern­ment which has sub­verted all the ma­jor in­sti­tu­tions. Look at the man­ner in which the dates were an­nounced for the Gu­jarat As­sem­bly elec­tions. This has created too many ap­pre­hen­sions in the minds of the peo­ple and of the Op­po­si­tion. In or­der to re­store pub­lic con­fi­dence, we need to go back to pa­per bal­lots.

EVMs have been in place for two decades and it is time to ac­knowl­edge that they have failed. Some

Three, we also used data from civil so­ci­ety, and NGOs that mon­i­tor elec­tions, and found that EVMs em­pow­ered those from the weaker sec­tions of so­ci­ety who were vic­tims of po­lit­i­cal or elec­toral vi­o­lence. In par­tic­u­lar, we found that women, lower castes, and those less ed­u­cated were more likely to par­tic­i­pate in the elec­toral process when EVMs were used.

Four, we also found that EVMs made the elec­toral process more com­pet­i­tive. There has been a sig­nif­i­cant de­cline in the in­ci­dence of re-elec­tion, and win­ning mar­gins have re­duced dra­mat­i­cally.

In light of this, it would be a ret­ro­grade Euro­pean coun­tries have ac­knowl­edged that EVMs have failed. Coun­tries there started with EVMs and are now go­ing back to the pa­per bal­lot.

Prob­lems of pa­per bal­lot

Hav­ing said that, I do ac­knowl­edge that pa­per bal­lots are cum­ber­some. Trans­port­ing them and guard­ing them is a prob­lem. And bal­lot boxes can be cap­tured. In the past, we know how this was done. But when I see what is in store for us now, I find that the scope of EVM ma­nip­u­la­tion and what can be achieved through this is on a much larger scale com­pared to booth cap­tur­ing. If EVMs are ma­nip­u­lated, all the

step to roll back EVMs. How­ever, this does not im­ply that we lower our guards. The very idea of democ­racy is based on trust and be­lief in the fair­ness of the elec­toral process where the los­ing party lives to fight an­other day. Any ero­sion of this trust and be­lief would be an ir­re­versible process with an un­cer­tain out­come.

In­sti­tu­tional checks

It is im­por­tant to keep in mind that

po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, ir­re­spec­tive of caste, creed and re­li­gion, are driven only by the quest for power and they will use any means to at­tain it. Hence it is our

to en­sure that such pow­ers are un­der check, else it does not

all col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity

votes could be cap­tured with a greater de­gree of so­phis­ti­ca­tion to favour one party. Tam­per­ing with EVMs would make booth cap­tur­ing much eas­ier. Be­sides, time and again the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion (EC) has said that the ma­chines can­not be hacked into as they are de­signed in such a man­ner so as to make that im­pos­si­ble. I quite agree with the EC when it says this.

But let us not be blind to a sce­nario where, if of­fi­cials are com­plicit, and if the guards guard­ing the EVM ma­chines are com­plicit, it is quite pos­si­ble to re­place the chips to get the de­sired ver­dict. take much for elected lead­ers to be­come despots. It is not out of the benev­o­lence of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers that we ex­pect de­liv­ery of pub­lic goods and ser­vices, but from the com­pet­i­tive elec­toral process that checks the self-in­ter­est of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in their quest for power.

Our in­sti­tu­tions, the EC, and the courts also share the re­spon­si­bil­ity to check the pow­ers of pop­u­larly elected lead­ers to en­sure that democ­racy does not be­come a moboc­racy. Even though in­tro­duc­tion of EVMs was a step in the right di­rec­tion, it is not the fi­nal des­ti­na­tion. The fragility of our demo­cratic process is re­flected in the fact that even now elec­tions are con­ducted un­der the bar­rel of the gun.

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