EVM hackathon: Much ado about nothing

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On the Eve of Punjab Assembly Elections in Amritsar.The foundation of India, the largest democracy in the world, lies in its electoral process. It is this electoral process that has been thrown in the dock of controversies during past few months. After any election, the public should be able to have the confidence that the person declared as the winner is in fact the one chosen by them. This confidence has been shaken by the allegations of tampering in the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) used during the recent state and civic polls. The irresponsible unsubstantiated insinuations and blame game by various political parties, looking to contextualize their electoral losses, have further jeopardized the already complicated electoral mechanism in the mind of the average Indian voter. The Election Commission of India has also not helped bring any clarity to the matter by its messy handling of the EVM debacle.

On June 3, the much-touted EVM hackathon by ECI was a no show. On May 21, the ECI had invited Indian political parties to participate in an open challenge to show how EVMs can be ‘tampered’, dubbed a ‘hackathon’ by the media. Only the NCP and CPI-M registered for the ECI challenge on time. However on the day of reckoning, the grand hackathon ended before even starting as both parties conveyed that they were only interested in studying and understanding the working of the EVM machinery. The NCP team led by Rajya Sabha member Vandana Chavan conveyed apprehension over the voting machines used in the municipal polls in Maharashtra; the commission clarified that the EVMs used by the Maharashtra SEC did not belong to the ECI. CEC Nasim Zaidi said the CPM members were given a detailed demonstration by the commission about EVMs and they were “satisfied”. A day later, the CPM said that the ECI hackathon had created an ‘adversarial’ atmosphere and was too ‘restrictive’ to instill confidence in political parties.

After the ECI stipulated some onerous terms and conditions, which did not allow opening the machines or any manipulation of their circuits/motherboard/display, AAP chose to keep away from the challenge and announced its own parallel hackathon, which invited all parties, people, ECI, ECIL and BEL to hack its prototype EVM. It turned out to be a dud as well. Mr Kejriwal’s party later said it was only launching registrations for the hackathon to be held on a different day and there was ‘confusion’ among those who thought otherwise. They denied that they had changed their plans because of a perceived lack of response to their invite. Also, Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), the manufacturer of electronic voting machines accused by AAP of having backed out of an EVM hackathon in Botswana, has denied that there was any hackathon organised by Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of Botswana.

After introduction of the EVM, a persistent pattern has emerged over the years where the parties leading the allegations about the EVMs after facing electoral losses, conveniently keep mum on the issue when their fortunes turn and they are in the ruling position. MB Haneefa invented India`s first electronically operated vote counting machine in 1980 and exhibited it all over Tamil Nadu. ECI used EVMs on a limited basis for the first time in the North Paravoor legislative assembly by-elections in Kerala, in 1982. The machines are since being made at Electronic Corporation of India (ECIL), Hyderabad and BEL, Bengaluru and have also been exported to countries including Nepal, Bhutan, Namibia and Kenya.

The BJP, which is now taking the high road on the EVM issue after coming to power, was one of the first parties to question the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the machines following the results of 2009 Lok Sabha polls when LK Advani alleged that EVMs were not ‘foolproof’. The Left and BSP supported the claim. In 2011, as a response to a PIL, the Supreme Court asked the ECI to consider modifying EVMs. In 2012, the Delhi High Court ruled that the EVM in its then present form was not ‘tamper-proof’ in response to a writ filed by Subramanian Swamy. After 2014 Lok Sabha elections were swept by BJP, such doubts again cropped up when then Chief Minister of Congress ruled Assam, Tarun Gogoi, alleged the BJP had tampered the EVMs at national level following reports of glitches in the functioning of the machines in Assam. Thereafter AAP candidate from Mumbai North East, Medha Patkar filed a formal complaint with the ECI.

Cut to the present, the municipal elections held in Maharashtra this year witnessed allegations of EVM tampering by several candidates from Mumbai, Pune, Nashik and Amravati. Some candidates from Mumbai’s K West wards alleged that several EVMs showed a faulty date and there were ‘huge’ discrepancies in the numbers polled and those eventually counted. After declaration of the results from assembly polls in U.P., Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur, parties like BSP, AAP, Congress and SP questioned the use of EVMs. BSP supremo Mayawati even moved court over the allegations of EVM tampering. Soon after the MCD civic polls were to be held, before which AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal unsuccessfully approached the state election commission and the Delhi high Court, to reinstate the use of ballot paper system or allow only second generation EVMs with Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) in the MCD polls. After BJP’s thumping win in the MCD polls, AAP alleged EVM manipulation despite being divided on the issue. It called a special session of Delhi Assembly to demonstrate the tampering of EVMs, though a dummy machine was used.

The ECM is a man made machine, which can be tampered, in theory. But manipulating it is near impossible. The ECI and BEL manufacture the machines independently under several security checks and audits. The EVMs use masked one time programmable read only memories to store codes. It doesn’t have any open ports and isn’t connected to any outside network. It allows only one vote/key press at a time, after which the presiding officer has to reset it before the next vote/key press. Data is stored in a chip inside the control unit while votes are recorded using the ballot unit. Both units are stored in separate secure rooms. Only viable option for tampering is by opening the control unit, which is kept in a separate strong room, and manipulating the data in the chip. This requires a lot of time and technical knowledge. Administrative security measures include fool-proof protective custody at all stages — from secure warehousing to moving them to the polling stations, through three levels of checks and three mock polls. Political party representatives are always present to witness and certify the entire process. This process is videographed.

Conversely, the Indian EVM uses microcontrollers manufactured by Microchip (USA) and Renesas (Japan), which deliver already masked chips with embedded firmware and thus cannot be verified afterwards. EVM manufacturers use generic microcontrollers rather than more secure ASIC or FPGA chips. Despite EVM being in its third generation, first generation EVMs are still largely in use. Such concerns coupled with the long gap between the polls and the declaration of results hamper complete confidence in the EVM. Instead of holding gimmicky challenges and giving knee jerk reactions, the ECI should demystify the EVM and address genuine concerns. CEC Nasim Zaidi has said that the VVPAT will be used in all future elections, which is a welcome move. EVMs have helped make the polls faster, cheaper, greener, and more efficient. The erstwhile ballot paper system was cumbersome and led to disqualification of large number of votes. Past CECs agree that EVM is the best bet for the future elections in India.
The EVM challenge by the ECI came to naught, as did the AAP hackathon. The Electronic voting Machine has been surrounded in controversies since its inception. For now the ECI has silenced the critics. Will the doubts go away? The return of the archaic ballot paper is definitely not the answer to the polling future of our country.

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