Is there a case for a relook at EVMs?
In order to restore public confidence, we need to go back to paper ballots
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.
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.