Karnataka is set to go to polls in less than six months, and right on cue the debate over the security of EVMs has come to the forefront yet again.
The Congress and other opposition parties in India have voiced allegations of EVMs being tampered as the BJP swept to victory in successive state elections in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Himachal with the notable exceptions of Punjab and Goa.
Now, Karnataka Minister of Information Technology Priyank Kharge has asked the Election Commission of India to organise a no-holds barred hackathon.
“I would like to propose hosting an EVM challenge, jointly hosted by the government of Karnataka and the EC, inviting important stakeholders of the scientific community like technocrats, scientists, corporates, R&D institutes, startups and tinkerers and not just political parties to participate in the testing of EVM’s for errors,” the letter by Congress party’s Kharge reads.
In his letter written to the Chief Election Commissioner of India Achal Kumar Jyoti, Kharge states, “If there are technical flaws, we can solve it together and if there are no errors, we restore the people’s faith in our democratic process.”
Kharge’s statements are in line with Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who has said that elections should be held with ballot papers.
However, the Karnataka Election Commission refuses to give any importance to the demand or allegations of EVMs getting compromised.
Speaking to TNM, KN Ramesh, the Joint Chief Electoral Officer in Karnataka said, “I am surprised that there are allegations. Only if they are ignorant of the transparent procedures, they can make these allegations.”
“We are using EVMs for the past 20 years, the technology is time tested. So far for the past 20 years, so many people have raised so many issues in various courts including High Courts and the Supreme Court,” he added.
Ramesh emphasised that since the EVMs are manufactured by two public sector companies (Bharat Electronics Ltd., Bangalore and Electronic Corporation of India Ltd., Hyderabad) and that the machines are always under the custody of the election related officers, there are no chances of hacking.
On allegations of bluetooth tampering during the recent Gujarat elections, Ramesh said, “The EVMs are totally isolated equipments which are not connected to the outside world, there is no wifi, internet facilities and not even a plug point for power.”
Other than these technical aspects, Ramesh said that a three-tier procedural safeguard make the EVM tampering process practically impossible.
“First when the EVMs are allotted for elections, the first level of checking is done in a highly transparent way. We call all the political parties, their agents and the machines are put to testing by the technical persons for the manufacturing company. Even the political party representatives can press the buttons and check. Finally, after they are convinced, they will put a seal and signature after the first phase of checking,” Ramesh said.
A similar exercise is carried out after the candidates are specified and the balloting unit is placed in the EVM, the testing is carried out and every candidate, agent will be called to make sure that it is properly working.
Furthermore, he explained, “Which EVMs will be used for which polling station is only finalised at the last minute due to existing randomisation systems as opposed to ballot papers where the papers will be stamped with the name of the particular seat.”
He added, “More importantly, on the poll day, just one hour before the polls start, we do mock polls. At the time of mock poll also, all the political party agents and the candidates who are present at the polling station will again check the machines. Everybody is allowed to cast a vote, they get to verify if the same button is registering votes for the same party. Polling is held only after a mock poll certificate is drawn with all the polling agents signing on it.”
“Finally, this time there is VVPAT (voter verifiable paper audit), so every voter will know who he has voted for. Political parties and their representatives are allowed to accompany the vehicles where the EVMs are transported, and also allowed to see the strong room. Everything is so transparent, there can never be any chances of any breach,” Ramesh added.
Other than this, the Election Commission in its official website reasons the usage of EVMs is also cost effective.
“Even though the initial investment is somewhat heavy, this is more than neutralised by the savings in the matter of printing of ballot papers in lakhs, their transportation, storage etc., and the substantial reduction in the counting staff and the remuneration paid to them,” the EC says on its website.
In his letter to the EC, Kharge has called for random counting of VVPATs to eliminate doubt.
“The SC verdict directing the EC to use VVPAT along with EVMs is also a much welcome step to enhance the trustworthiness of our elections. But unless VVPAT is randomly verified with the EVMs, they too will fall suspect sooner or later,” he said.
Similar demands were made by the Aam Aadmi Party. In this blog, the party’s Ankit Lal had cast severe apprehensions about the security features of the EVMs. The blog also criticised the EC for not being open to scrutiny with its long list of limitations for a proposed hackathon.
Notably, after the Gujarat polls, the EC said that the random vote count of VVPATS in one polling station of each of the 182 Gujarat assembly seats witnessed a 100% match..
This even after the Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Mishra had denied a plea by the Congress to count 20% of paper trail slips along with the votes cast in EVMs.
The BJP, meanwhile, has hit out at Kharge’s allegations, with spokesperson Malavika Avinash saying, “This is just a convenient alibi for a sure loss in the 2018 polls.All these questions about EVMs have been answered several times over by various retired Election Commissioners and present officers. Every time these discussions are held, we come to the same answer which is that they can’t be tampered.”
“It’s extremely unfortunate that the EVM machine which is manufactured in Karnataka is doubted by the Karnataka Congress. They are doing the same song and dance that the AAP, Mayawati tried. They are welcome to do it but the net result is going to be the same,” she added.