The Week
Jagdeep S. Chhokar
New Delhi

Appropriate technology should be used to make the EVS more credible

EVMs have had a tumultuous history, all of which have been extensively documented, and therefore need not be repeated. More than one million EVMs were used in all 543 parliamentary constituencies in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

Within five years, serious doubts were being raised by a lot of people, including BJP veteran L.K. Advani. G.V.L. Narasimha Rao’s Democracy At Risk! Can We Trust Our Electronic Voting Machines?, with a preface by Advani, was published in 2010. Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines were introduced for further transparency and verifiability in poll process. This usage continued and so did the complaints, now resulting in filing of petitions in various courts including the Supreme Court. The apex court ordered counting of VVPAT slips in five polling booths per constituency, but that did not satisfy critics and the furore continues.


In the beginning, EVMs were supposed to be ‘standalone’ machines, which meant that they were not connected to or contacted by any external source or device. This was one of the prime arguments in support of their integrity and their inability to be manipulated in any manner. And that was correct.

All political parties have contributed to the erosion of confidence in the electoral system and thus in democracy. This is the real tragedy of the EVMs.

However, with the addition of VVPATs and further developments, the arrangement now consists of three separate but connected machines―the EVM (which the Election Commission now describes as a ballot unit on its website), the VVPAT, and a control unit.

To refer to a system consisting of three separate machines as an electronic voting machine is misleading. It is not a matter of mere semantics because the image the word ‘machine’ conveys to the mind of a reader or listener is that of a single machine. This can be removed very easily by calling the three-machine setup as the electronic voting system (EVS), which, in fact, it is. This will help in partially clearing the confusion that currently prevails in the minds of a lot of people.

Working of the EVS

Common understanding has been that when a voter presses the button on the EVM, the information goes to the VVPAT, and from the VVPAT the information goes to the counting or control unit. The Election Commission has recently, in the updated frequently asked questions on its website, said that the information from the EVM first goes to the control unit, and then goes from the control unit to the VVPAT.

Be that as it may, what is at issue is one of the cardinal principles of a free and fair election in a functioning democracy―that a vote should be cast as intended, recorded as cast, and counted as recorded, and the voter should be able to satisfy her or himself that it is indeed so. Despite the clarification of the Election Commission about the movement of the data among the three machines, the three components of the cardinal principle of free and fair election are violated because a voter can only ‘see’ what is printed on the VVPAT slip, and mere ‘seeing’ is not ‘verification’. It is not easy for a voter to say that what s/he sees is not correct because of penal provisions in case the voter’s contention is found to be incorrect. This is a serious deterrent. In any case, there is no way for a voter to satisfy herself/himself that her/his vote has been cast as intended, recorded as cast, and counted as recorded.

The tragedy

The entire ongoing saga of the EVMs has one fact running through it: Every political party criticised EVMs when it lost an election, and the same party seemed quite satisfied when it won the election. Introduction of EVMs seemed to be a well-intended action and, like all such experiments, it needed tweaking for improvements. However, all political parties, at one time or another, decided to create misgivings in the minds of voters that the entire system was a conspiracy. All, and I repeat, all political parties have contributed to the erosion of confidence in the electoral system and thus in democracy. This is the real tragedy of the EVMs. This irresponsibility of the political establishment has been manifested in various ways and in various national issues. It calls for a law that establishes norms of behaviour for political parties.

What can be done?

The solution lies in using a once vilified term―appropriate technology, not the most advanced technology. The proposal is as follows:

◆ Since the EVMs have been in use for quite some time and voters in general are familiar with their use, EVMs should be retained.

◆ The VVPATs and control units should be removed, and replaced by a simple printer capable of printing a slip showing the name and party symbol of the candidate that the voter voted for and a bar code that enables machine counting of the slips.

◆  The paper on which the above information is printed should be of good and durable quality capable of retaining the printed information for seven years (as opposed to the current paper from which the printed matter reportedly disappears after a rather short time).

◆ The voter should be able to collect the slip from the printer directly (without any election official having to intervene or assist the voter in any way), and place the slip directly in a common ballot box.

◆ All the slips in the common ballot box should be machine-counted based on the bar code printed on each slip. This counting process using counting machines based on the bar code should not take many days as apprehended by the Election Commission whenever a demand for a 100 per cent counting of VVPAT slips is made, and in which even the Supreme Court has had to intervene in the past.

This proposal will enable every voter to satisfy herself/himself that her/his vote has been cast as intended, recorded as cast and counted as recorded, without any doubt. Counting of votes will not take long and voter slips will be available to deal with any confusion or disputes post election such as in the case of the election of the Chandigarh mayor.

Some details of the proposal may need to be fine-tuned but I believe it is worth considering.

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