Authored by: Sitara Srinivas
The 2019 General Election has been characterised by questions and doubt over the efficacy, security, and tamperability of Electronic Voting Machine or EVMs (1). The introduction of Verifiable Voter Paper Audit Trail (2) (VVPAT) Machines across India’s 543 constituencies for the first time ever in the General Elections, has raised questions in attempts to strengthen the electoral process and ensure the credibility of the results (3).
Created as a uniquely Indian version of the machine in 1980 in India by M.B Haneefa, the EVM was first used in 50 polling booths in Kerala’s North Paravur Assembly Constituency by-elections in 1981. In 1989, the Election Commission of India (ECI) commissioned these EVMs in collaboration with Bharat Electronics Limited and Electronics Corporation of India Limited.
In 1998, EVMs were used on an experimental basis in Assembly Elections in 16 constituencies across 3 states. The 2004 Lok Sabha General Assembly Elections were the first to take place entirely through EVMs (4).
The decision to employ EVMs was also long and arduous. In 1982, the Supreme Court of India ruled against the use of EVMs, a case which consequently contested the results of that year’s by-elections (1984 AIR(921)) (5). This was, however, a ruling based on a legal technicality rather than the machine’s suitability for the process of elections. The technicality was corrected by an amendment to the Representation of the People Act (1951) (RoP) in 1988, which has since provided adequate legal framework for the use of EVMs.
India gradually transitioned its electoral processes choosing to simplify it by using EVM instead of paper ballots which had previously posed as a logistical concern in the actual process. Using paper ballot mechanism to cast votes was a logistical nightmare (Anima 2019) and in the yesteryears of polling day the election process used to be rife with booth capturing and poll rigging (Rajya Sabha TV: 2017).
The possibility of VVPATs first emerged in October 2010, when 21 political parties including the Indian National Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, Samajwadi Party, Telugu Desam Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Rashtriya Janata Dal and others requested the ECI to consider the introduction of VVPATs for increased transparency as well as the verifiability of votes cast.
2011 saw the M3 (Model 3) generation of EVMs being developed, with a feature for the addition of the VVPAT. In 2011, the ECI conducted field trials of the same to test its functioning under various weather conditions.
The 2019 Lok Sabha elections will be using these new generation of EVM-VVPAT machines with a self diagnostics tamper-proof technology built into it (6).
The Supreme Court of India in Subramanian Swamy v ECI (2013) ruled that, while apprehensions that EVMs could be tampered with were baseless, paper trails were indispensable requirements of free and fair elections. VVPATs were then used for the first time in the 2013 Noksen Assembly Constituency by-elections in Nagaland. Subsequently, the Conduct of Election Rules 1961, were amended (7), allowing the ECI to use VVPATs along with EVMs (8). It was in 2017, however, where VVPATs and EVMs were employed during the Goa State Assembly Elections.
In 2018, reports of malfunctioning VVPAT machines emerged during the by-elections to four Lok Sabha seats and 10 Assembly seats. The reports of malfunctioning were so widespread that the ECI ordered re-polls to 73 booths of the Kairana Parliamentary constituency in Uttar Pradesh, 49 booths of the Bhandara-Gondiya assembly seat in Maharashtra, and one booth in the Nagaland Lok Sabha Seat (9).
In response to this, the then Chief Election Commissioner, Achal Kumar Jyoti blamed the malfunctioning on excessively hot weather, exposure of sensors to light, and inexperienced staff. While steps have been taken to rectify this for the 2019 Lok Sabha General elections – including designing hoods to cover the sensors against light and trained personnel – this set the stage for more questions on the reliability of such a system (Quraishi 2018).
On March 24, 2019, Supreme court of India heard a joint petition filed by 21 Opposition parties which demanded the random verification of at least 50% of all EVM-VVPATs in every Assembly segment or constituency (10).
Further, SC stated that it was in favour of increasing the random physical verification of VVPATs in elections, while also giving the ECI time until 8 April 2019 to come out with its own reply to the demands of the petition.
The ECI guideline that was being contested, stated that physical counting should be conducted only in one randomly selected polling station of an Assembly Constituency in the case of State Elections and each Assembly segment in Lok Sabha Elections. On 8 April 2019, the ECI stated that random checks of VVPATs would be increased across the country. Following the SC order, the ECI would look to count the VVPAT slips of five EVMs in each constituency, or 20,625 EVMs. Up until the order, they had been following the one EVM per assembly segment guideline, matching the slips of 4,125 EVMS.
Despite this, reports from the first two phases of voting in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections have several instances of EVM-VVPAT machines malfunctioning. Reports from the first phase on April 11 highlighted glitches (11); like missing buttons for particular parties, and the VVPAT recording the vote as going to another party when the button for one was pressed. In the second phase, on April 18, delays were seen due to malfunctioning machines.
Reports of EVM tampering have been reported internationally as well. In 2018, Indian made EVMs in Botswana came under scrutiny when reports of interference to favour one party over another cropped up. However, the Botswana Election Commission continued to use these EVMs (12).
The alternative to EVMs remains the age-old ballot papers, a system that has seen numerous issues.
- 21 Opposition parties including the Indian National Congress moved the SC seeking better safety norms to prevent tampering of EVMs.
- At the time of voting for a candidate, the voter, after pressing the button for a candidate of their choice gets to see a slip that shows the symbol as well as the name of the candidate that they’re voting for. These slips can later be tallied with the total votes cast.
- Former Chief Justice of India, SY Quraishi suggested that instead of randomly picking a EVM to verify the machine to be verified, allow the 2 runners up to pick two machines each of their choices to be verified.
- A simple machine, where the voter pressed a button beside the name and symbol of the candidate of their choice.
- AC Jose vs Sivan Pillai and Ors. AC Jose of the Congress (I) lost to Sivan Pillai of the Communist Party of India. Voting took place both by conventional voting (paper ballots) as well as through the mechanical process, that is the use of ‘electronic’ machines.
- Allowing the Returning Officer to transmit paper ballots electronically.
- Subramanian Swamy v ECI (2013) 10 SCC 500
Anima, P. “Indian Elections: The Biggest Management Event on Earth.” @businessline. Accessed April 23, 2019. https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/blink/cover/indian-elections-the-biggest-management-event-on-earth/article26816758.ece.
Bishnoi, Anubhuti. “Indian EVMs Cause Furore in Botswana.” The Economic Times, May 31, 2018. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/indian-evms-cause-furore-in-botswana/articleshow/64393693.cms.
First Post Staff. “Electronic Voting Machine and Its History with India: Controversy over EVMs Malfunctioning, Rigging Allegations Are Not New.” Firstpost. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://www.firstpost.com/india/electronic-voting-machine-and-its-history-with-india-controversy-over-evms-malfunctioning-rigging-allegations-are-not-new-5939961.html.
Gupta, Shekhar. “Supreme Court Strikes down EC’s Introduction of Electronic Voting machines.” India Today. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/indiascope/story/19840331-supreme-court-strikes-down-ecs-introduction-of-electronic-voting-machines-802920-1984-03-31.
HT Correspondent. “Bring Back Ballot Papers, Opposition Tells Election Commission.” Hindustan Times, August 27, 2018. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/congress-ljd-seek-paper-ballots-for-2019-general-elections/story-HPKI7lreP4GEm3n1J4wyJL.html.
Indo Asian News Service. “New ‘Tamper-Detect’ EVMs to Be Used in 2019 Polls: CEC.” Hindustan Times, July 5, 2017. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/new-tamper-detect-evms-to-be-used-in-2019-polls-cec/story-0S4eMqUJA2dnM7plM2q9CP.html.
Quraishi, S. Y. “When the Solution Became the Problem: The Controversy over Failing VVPATs.” The Caravan. Accessed April 21, 2019. https://caravanmagazine.in/politics/failing-vvpats-solution-became-problem.
Quraishi, SY. “VVPATs: This Simple Proposal Will Help the Election Commission Clear the Air on EVM Use.” The Wire. Accessed April 21, 2019. https://thewire.in/politics/vvpat-election-commission-evms-2019-elections.
Sinha, Bhadra. “21 Opposition Parties Move Supreme Court over Paper Trail Verification in Lok Sabha Polls.” Hindustan Times, March 14, 2019. https://www.hindustantimes.com/lok-sabha-elections/lok-sabha-elections-2019-21-parties-move-supreme-court-over-paper-trail-verification-in-polls/story-v1aRqWO3jdfwmMFA25HBKM.html.
The Wire Staff. “Phase One: Voter Complaints Over Malfunctioning EVMs Pour in From Several States.” The Wire. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://thewire.in/politics/lok-sabha-elections-phase-one-voter-complaints-malfunctioning-evms.
Vaidyanathan, A. “More Paper Trail Machines To Be Used In Polls On Supreme Court’s Order.” NDTV.com. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/more-vvpats-or-paper-trail-machines-to-be-used-by-election-commission-on-supreme-courts-order-2019629.