In EVMs, We Trust: Why India Can’t Afford to Doubt its Voting Technology

Politics

In EVMs, We Trust: Why India Can’t Afford to Doubt its Voting Technology

Illustration: Zinal Joshi

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year before Kapil Dev stood up in the balcony of Lords and lifted the World Cup for India, a constituency in Kerala geared up for a new experiment. In 1982, state assembly elections, candidates in Paravoor were apprehensive about the pilot project being undertaken in their constituency. Fifty out of the 123 polling booths would see the use of an Electronic Voting Machine. That was the first time ever EVMs were used in an Indian election.

Sivan Pillai, candidate with the Communist Party of India challenged the experiment even before the polling began. Except… he won when the results came out. It was now the turn of the Congress Party candidate, AC Jose, to cry foul. He approached the Supreme Court on technical grounds, and the SC ordered re-polling with ballot papers, which saw the reversal of the verdict. Jose eventually emerged victorious.

Thirty-seven years after the eventful elections in Paravoor, India has still not settled its debate on EVMs. The latest instance being the farcical press conference in London, where the conspiracy theories were spun better than Shane Warne ever spun a cricket ball. Claimed to be a US-based cyber expert, Syed Shuja said the 2014 general elections in India were rigged and the deaths of journalist Gauri Lankesh and Union minister Gopinath Munde had been engineered to cover up for it. While making these wild allegations, he provided no evidence. Experts in India have also rubbished his assertions of EVMs being manipulated with slow-frequency signals, with the Election Commission requesting the Delhi police to file an FIR against self-proclaimed cyber expert Shuhja.

Long story short: the much-hyped press conference was a damp squib.

If it was so easy to hack an election, why did the BJP lose the three states in the Hindi heartland? Why have only two parties dominated Kerala politics so far? Or do the low-frequency signals stop working in the south? And what about the by-polls in Rajasthan and UP, the ones BJP lost after 2014?

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There is enough data out there to prove that the introduction of electronic voting has led to a decline in electoral frauds.

Image Credits: Getty Images

The presence of Congress leader Kapil Sibal at that press conference allowed people to speculate if the main opposition party is legitimising the wild allegations. Sibal later clarified he attended it in a personal capacity, but it put the Congress in an awkward situation. By harping on EVMs, the opposition parties betray their lack of confidence in taking on the Narendra Modi-led BJP.

To be fair, the shoe has been on the other foot as well. LK Advani has cast aspersions on EVMs in the past. BJP spokesperson GVL Narasimha Rao has even written an entire book on it in 2009. Political parties bring it up to deflect attention from their poor electoral performance. It is much easier than facing uncomfortable truths. The Aam Aadmi Party too has held a demonstration in the Delhi assembly to show how EVMs can be tampered with. But there is a difference between “EVMs can be rigged”, and “EVMs are rigged”. And if getting rid of EVMs is what our politicians really want, it essentially means going back in time to the ballot paper.

The good old times of the ballot paper increased the importance of strongmen in political parties that would indulge in booth capturing. In the ballot paper era, it was easier to manipulate votes of the poor and the uneducated. In a sense, EVMs helped deepen India’s democracy.  

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For a developing country like ours, going back to the ballot paper would be a cure worse than the disease.

Image Credits: Getty Images

In 1991, for example, violence related to large-scale booth capturing led to 36 deaths and 873 re-polls. Had it not been for TN Seshan, the chaos would have only intensified. A combative chief election commissioner in the ’90s, Seshan cleaned up the process to a large extent in India. In one of the elections in UP, he had given 50,000 history-sheeters an option to get anticipatory bail or face preventive action. One of Seshan’s novel ideas, straight out of an Abbas-Mustan thriller, materialised in western UP’s Bulandshahr, where a police office ensured he thrashed a candidate in front of the local don. The don never left his house on the polling day. Seshan tamed the most notorious politicians and governors, who thought they had a chance to subvert the elections in the ballot paper era.

But in the absence of Seshans, EVMs have been doing a fine job. There is enough data out there to prove that the introduction of electronic voting has led to a decline in electoral frauds. A research paper published in March 2017 and authored by the economists Sisir Debnath of the Indian School of Business, Mudit Kapoor of the Indian Statistical Institute, and Shamika Ravi of Brookings India suggests the introduction of EVMs not only helped reduce election fraud but also helped improve development outcomes by empowering poor and marginal voters, a Mint report titled “Why EVMs Matter in India” points out. So if more people from the lower income groups vote, they are likely to influence government policies.

Excuses like heat wave to justify mass malfunctioning of EVMs or missing 22 lakh voters in Telangana haven’t helped either.

The report also mentions a 2015 paper by Thomas Fujiwara of Princeton University which concluded that “by empowering the votes of the poor and the illiterate, the machines encouraged the lawmakers to pay heed to the preferences of the poor”. Greater access to electricity and more participation of women and the poor in the electoral process are some of the positive outcomes of EVMs.

Yet, it has been impossible to quell the debate around voting technology in India. The London press conference is just an addition to conspiracy theories already floating around. In fact, the conference further trivialised the debate, especially at a time when some of the news reports have raised serious concerns around the fairness of elections: An EVM machine was found near a BJP leader’s home in Rajasthan. Two men disguised as Jio employees tried to enter the EVM strongroom in Chhattisgarh. Several EVMs had malfunctioned in the Gujarat elections.

These news reports have come at a time when Election Commission’s credibility has not been at its peak. Critics have questioned its autonomy under the current regime. Excuses like heat wave to justify mass malfunctioning of EVMs or missing 22 lakh voters in Telangana haven’t helped either.

Just like justice, elections must not only be fairly conducted but also appear to be fairly conducted. On the ground, that fairness is being occasionally questioned. I remember covering Gujarat elections in 2017 where voters would often finish the conversation with, “Bas EVM mein lafda nahi hona chahiye.”

We hear the public discussing EVM hacks more than we ever have before and the Election Commission would do well to be proactive and clear the air, for we have come a long way since GVL Narasimha Rao wrote that book. The biggest difference between now and then is the proliferation of social media, where rumours and theories spread like a forest fire.

While covering the assembly elections of Gujarat, I had asked a paan shop owner in a village outside Jamnagar about Rao’s book. He’d never heard of it. Nor had I until a few months before that. But he had followed the demo AAP had arranged in the Delhi assembly, because someone forwarded it to him on WhatsApp.

The debate around the free and fair nature of the polls would be constructive if it revolves around reassuring voters and asking the right questions of the Election Commission. For a developing country like ours, going back to the ballot paper would be a cure worse than the disease. And we do not have a Seshan to rescue us from another prospective mess. In EVMs, we must trust.

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