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EVM-VVPAT Security Breached in Assam & Bengal: Yes, It Is Alarming

The frequency at which EVM-VVPAT security is being breached is rising and worrying, say experts.   

Updated
India
6 min read
EVM-VVPAT machines found in a BJP leader’s car and at a TMC leader’s relative’s residence,  raise concerns on the handling of these machines by Election Commission. So far, no complaint of malafide intent has been filed with EC, but isn’t the frequency alarming?
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On 1 April, 2021, a set of EVM (Electronic Voting Machine) and VVPAT (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail) machines were found inside a BJP candidate’s car in Assam. The EVM-VVPAT had been used at Ratabari (SC) polling station in Karimgunj district the same day.

On 5 April, in yet another incident, reserve EVM-VVPAT machines were found at the home of a relative of a Trinamool Congress leader. Tapan Sarkar, a deputed Election Officer for Howrah’s Sector 17 in AC 177 Uluberia Uttar in West Bengal, accepted that he had stayed for a night at their residence. In this case, the election officer was suspended by the Election Commission (EC).

Undoubtedly, in both cases, the protocol laid down by the Election Commission (EC) on handling EVM-VVPAT machines was violated.

“Under no circumstances will any person take any EVM, whether polled EVMs or reserve EVMs, in the custody of sector officers, to their home or any private place.”
EC guidelines

But the bigger question is - what were those politicians or political parties found in possession, or having access to EVM-VVPAT machines during the elections, planning to do with them?

Stealing EVM-VVPAT machines is a crime. A person can be charged under the National Security Act (NSA) if caught in illegal possession of EVM-VVPAT machines. And yet, interestingly, no complaint has been filed by any political party, pointing towards malicious intent, in either of the recent cases.

No one in authority was prepared to tell The Quint what the intention of the election officer or the politicians may have been behind getting hold of these EVM-VVPATs.

But after speaking to a few former EC officials and engineers familiar with EVM-VVPAT machines, The Quint has identified three scenarios in which those EVM-VVPATs could have been misused.

  • First, a polled EVM-VVPAT could be replaced by another EVM-VVPAT into which votes favouring a particular party may have been punched.
  • Second, reserve EVM-VVPATs could possibly be tampered with in favour of a political party, with the aim of using it in the next phase of the election.
  • Third, a political party may have connived with an election officer to gain access to EVM-VVPAT machines, and then rope in experts to crack its vulnerabilities.
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Possibility #1 - Replace with a 'Stuffed' EVM

Now if we take the Karimgunj incident, the first possibility may fit here – of replacing the polled EVM-VVPAT with a new 'stuffed' EVM-VVPAT which has votes in favour of a particular political party already punched in.

Once polling is over, there is no point in tampering with an EVM-VVPAT which has already recorded electoral votes. A political party may only gain if it replaces the original polled EVM-VVPAT with a 'stuffed' one.

But all polled EVM-VVPAT are sealed with unique numbers on them, before they are transported to the EC's strong room after polling. This is done by the Presiding Officers with a ‘Special Tag’ which is supplied by the EC.

EVM machines have two components - Ballot Unit (BU) and Control Unit (CU). The BU, CU and VVPAT, all have a unique serial numbers. The Presiding Officer has to write the serial number on the ‘Special Tag’ and sign it before sealing the BU, CU and VVPAT.

So then, how can they be replaced?

A former Election Officer, on the condition of anonymity, explained that it is not impossible to replace polled EVM-VVPAT with a new EVM-VVPAT.

“If one intends to forge the seal with the signature of the Presiding Officer, then it is not difficult to do. Speaking out of my experience, the serial number on the EVM-VVPAT boxes are almost never checked by the counting agents or the political agents. The counting agent just checks the serial number on the tag and starts the counting.”
Former election officer

He added that at the time of vote counting too, the counting officer or the political agents do not generally do any major checks on the EVMs brought in from the strong rooms. They should match the EVM's CU and BU serial numbers with those noted on the special tags, but this is almost never done for every EVM.

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Possibility #2 - Tampering with a Reserve EVM

In the second incident on 5 April, a reserve machine was found at the home of a relative of a TMC leader.

Experts told The Quint that while a reserve machine cannot be used for 'vote stuffing', it can be tampered with.

“We all know that EVM-VVPATs can be tampered with if someone has physical access to them. Tampering can be done in a manner that maximum votes get registered in favour of a particular political party, irrespective of voters’ choice.”
Former election officer

One may argue that a tampered EVM could be identified when the mock poll of 50 votes is conducted on the EVM on polling day.

“The tampering can pre-empt the 50 vote mock poll. Eg: the EVM can be re-programmed to record the first 100 votes correctly, but from the 101st vote onwards, irrespective of whom the voter chooses, it will go to a particular political party. And voter would not even come to know.”
Subhashis Banerjee, Professor, Computer Science and Engineering, IIT Delhi

It is worth noting here that the reserve EVM-VVPAT in question belonged to AC 177 Uluberia Uttar in West Bengal. And polls were to be conducted at this polling station on the day after it was found at the residence of a TMC leader’s relative.

But then again, those not buying into a conspiracy theory would point out that before the mock poll, all votes in the EVM-VVPAT machines are deleted. So, even if a reserve machine has been 'stuffed' in advance, then Presiding Officer's drill will see it all deleted before polling starts. Hence the purpose will be defeated.

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Possibility #3 - Cracking Machine’s Vulnerabilities

Not one but multiple reports have been published showing that EVM-VVPATs are vulnerable to manipulations, especially if someone has physical access to the machine.

Since illegal possession of the machine is a crime, gaining physical access to EVM-VVPATs by conniving with the election officer is far more safer. And, once any political party manages to crack the vulnerabilities of EVM-VVPATs through their technical experts – then they can use these vulnerabilities in their favour in future elections.

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According to the former Chief Election Commissioner, OP Rawat, these incidences are ‘aberrations’ and so, they should be dealt with sternly.

“It is an aberration because the human resource in our country has all kinds of people. The EC has to draw people from various streams for election duty. So, one cannot expect 100 percent perfection. Someone must put out a concrete argument or clear proof that something malicious transpired. If not, then it’s a sheer aberration. Yet, if anyone files such a complaint, then a detailed inquiry should be conducted by the EC.”
OP Rawat, former CEC

Rawat also mentioned that during his tenure two such incidents did take place – in one case, the EVMs were found at a police station and in the other, at a hotel.

Founding member of Association for Democratic Reform, Jagdeep Chhokar, who has been dealing with election issues for the past two decades said, “Incidents of EVMs being found in diverse places have been reported for the last few elections. However, the frequency of such instances and the circumstances under which this seems to happen are becoming stranger progressively.”

He added that these incidences should not be looked at through a single looking glass.

“The frequent occurrence of such incidents can be seen from three different perspectives: First, inefficiency. Second, indifference or a careless and casual approach. Third, it could be collusion.
Jagdeep Chhokar, Founding Member, ADR
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There is no doubt that massive human resources are required to conduct elections. However, the frequency at which EVM-VVPATs’ security is breached, and the inadequate explanation presented by the EC, raises several questions.

The EC, in its press release, on Assam’s Ratabari incident, said, “While the sector officer was arranging for an alternate vehicle, the polling party decided to arrange a vehicle of its own.”

But if the sector officer was arranging an alternate vehicle, then why did the polling party rush into taking a lift in a passing car, despite knowing that it is a violation?

Can it be a sheer coincidence that the passing car turned out to be a politician’s car? Isn’t it the duty of the polling party to do some due diligence before taking a lift from a stranger?

EC also says that action should be taken against the armed officer for leaving behind the EVM-VVPAT unguarded. However, the EC hasn’t clarified why the armed officer left the EVM-VVPAT machines ‘unguarded’.

Shouldn’t the EC conduct a detailed inquiry into both incidents, so that these mistakes are not repeated in the future?

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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