Why it is necessary to make ‘Paper Trail’ work for India’s EVMs?

Posted on August 20, 2011 by G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, under Elections

On October 4, at the All-party meeting convened by the Election Commission of India (ECI), there was a consensus among all political parties that the ECI must introduce a system of Voter Verified Paper Trail (VVPAT). Showing some flexibility after many months of stiff resistance, the ECI had agreed to explore implementation of the VVPAT option in the EVMs. As promised, the ECI has referred the matter to its Expert Committee headed by P.V. Indiresan to study the feasibility of introducing VVPAT.

What is Voter verified paper trail?

Voter verified paper trail (VVPAT) refers to a system wherein a printer attached with the voting machine produces a paper printout of every vote cast just as an ATM produces a slip after every transaction. The voter verifies it for its accuracy and then it is stored in a ballot box as a separate record of votes, independent of the electronic record stored in the EVM.

Why paper trail is needed?

Ordinary voters, political parties, security researchers, activists etc. have expressed doubts about the reliability and integrity of electronic voting machines in the recent months. While the ECI always dismissed such doubts with claims of infallibility and totally tamper-proof EVMs, the scientific evidence showed that these claims lacked basis.

What makes our EVMs untrustworthy is that they function as ‘black boxes’ and have rendered the voting process non-transparent, unverifiable and un-auditable. And, this obscurity has led to nagging doubts among voters and parties about their reliability. There are hardly any exceptions to this as almost all parties have expressed doubts about the reliability of EVMs in one election or the other.

International experience

If you believe India is experiencing unique troubles, think again. It is the same story everywhere.

After spending millions of euros, many European countries, including Germany, Netherlands, Ireland, etc., have banned electronic voting and returned to paper ballots. In the U.S. too, most states have banned paperless voting systems. Admittedly, India has unique needs and situations. Thus, we need not emulate western democracies. But we should not overlook the limitations of our non-transparent electronic voting systems either.

ECI’s Concerns

Even before the ECI agreed to study VVPAT feasibility, election administrators and experts representing the Election Commission of India have expressed many concerns regarding implementation of a VVPAT regime.

Bribery and intimidation: They fear that a VVPAT solution may become a source for bribery and intimidation of the voters when a voter leaves the polling station with a physical printed ballot in his/ her hand. This can be addressed by having a VVPAT solution in which the printed ballot becomes visible behind a glass screen which gets dropped into a ballot box after the voter verifies it for accuracy. Chandrababu Naidu made such a proposal and all parties backed it at the all-party meeting. I have also elaborated on this in my previous blog: http://www.indianevm.com/blogs/?p=501

Secrecy of the vote: The VVPAT will compromise the secrecy of the vote. Nobody explains how. If the voter alone verifies his/ her own vote which gets (or is) dropped into a ballot box, how does that compromise secrecy? Is one saying that even the voter should not get to see how his/ her vote has been recorded? Isn’t that strange? Can one call such a voting procedure as secure?

Printer Problems: Unreliability of printers is cited as a limitation. It may well be but that would only warrant procuring better quality printers or getting them designed as per the ECI’s requirements and keeping enough number in reserve for replacement. This no doubt is a difficult task, but not an insurmountable challenge.

Confusion: confusion, disruption and delays in voting are cited as impediments in implementing VVPAT. If bringing transparency into the voting process entails all these challenges, let us face them and see how they can be overcome.

Costs: The cost involved in implementing VVPAT is cited as a major factor. Cost involved is well worth it, given that there is nothing more valuable than a well-preserved democracy. It would be specious to argue that we cannot afford the costs involved for holding trustworthy elections which is barely a small fraction of one Lakh crores reportedly splurged on hosting Commonwealth games extravagantly.

Redundancy: Another common argument is: why have voting machines at all if you need to print every vote? The need for a physical record is to ensure transparency for the voters and verifiability for the candidates. VVPAT solution allows the efficiency of use of voting machines (for example, faster counts) and provides the much needed transparency to make elections trustworthy.

***

Elections must not only be fair, but must be seen to be fair by all. On this trust lies the edifice of our democracy. Paperless electronic voting, currently in vogue has inherent limitations in offering such confidence.

The choice before the ECI is not whether the paper trail is feasible or not. The real question is how to make Indian elections transparent and verifiable. In my opinion, that ought to have been the terms of reference for the Expert Committee examining the “feasibility” of introducing voter verified paper audit trail.

Making VVPAT work is no doubt a challenge but we must make it work if India must continue with electronic voting. Undertaking pilot projects, as the BJP suggested at the all-party meeting, before its nationwide implementation is a way to understand challenges and overcome them with ingenious solutions.

I can be contacted at nrao@indianEVM.com



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 G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, -G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, 45, is a leading election analyst and a political commentator.
 

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