Election Commission’s Snub to TDP’s EVM Expert Reveals Its Biases 

In a democracy, it’s incumbent on the EC to seek expert inputs on EVMs, which are crucial to the voting process.

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The EVM debate will go on forever, unless the Election Commission makes these black boxes transparent, and actually allows someone – including its sharpest critics – to tear them apart.

Any machine can be prone to malfunction and error, and if these are being pointed out to the Election Commission, it should address them. Instead, the Election Commission has chosen to ignore legitimate concerns raised by the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), by refusing an audience to EVM ‘expert’ Hari Prasad Vemuru, who has been accused of ‘stealing’ an EVM in the past.

With the recent malfunctioning of EVMs in Andhra Pradesh during the first phase of the Lok Sabha elections, the TDP is demanding that the Election Commission re-conduct polls in 618 polling booths. The EVM malfunctioned to the extent that even the Chief Electoral Officer of Andhra Pradesh faced difficulties in casting his vote.

The Election Commission doesn’t always disclose the details of malfunctions of EVMs, and it rarely informs the public about the scale of the problem.


Lack of Introspection on EC’s Part

Amid this, TDP delegate Hari Prasad, has raised fresh concerns over how VVPATs are working on the ground, as they are not showing the printed audit slips for 7 seconds as mentioned in the VVPAT manual, and are only displaying it for 3 seconds. Hari Prasad’s hypothesis is that, either there has been a change in the code, or the EVMs are faulty. The Election Commission ought to have answered his concerns by investigating this change in the functioning of VVPATs.

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It is worth noting that there is no publicly available information on how the Commission ensures the security of EVM codes, especially when they don’t check or audit each EVM.

The Election Commission’s decision to not engage with the TDP delegation and Hari Prasad, has raised questions on its impartiality and decisions. In the past, when Hari Prasad showed how EVMs could be tampered with, by using an actual EVM (supplied to him by an insider), the EC filed a complaint of theft against him, instead of acting on the issue. The Commission is thus, continuing its practice of not engaging with technical experts who point out problems.


EC Should Learn from Its Foreign Counterparts

While the Election Commission announced a hackathon on EVMs in 2017, it never allowed anyone to inspect the EVM closely. The Commission wanted political parties to hack it by punching the buttons on the EVMs. Clearly, that’s not how real world hacking of machines takes place.

The Commission should learn from its peers in other countries, who are taking these machines to cyber security conferences, and allowing hackers to inspect them closely by breaking them apart.

EVMs are an easy target, for political parties to blame when they lose elections, and not bother with them when they win. But Hari Prasad has been revealing the problems with the EVMs consistently, and these should not be ignored by the Commission. There is a push from all major parties in the Opposition to make the EVMs more transparent. This issue will continue to surface again and again, until the Election Commission releases the source code of EVMs, and chooses to work with security researchers and tech experts.


EVMs Must Be More Transparent In a Democracy

With the Central Information Commission classifying the source code of EVMs as “information”, the debate has been pushed in the direction for auditing the code of EVMs. The Election Commission’s stance on EVMs being tamper proof, is that they are not networked, and its code is signed to ensure no one can change it. But this closed nature of the debate, with only certain experts certifying their functionality, doesn’t ascertain legitimacy.

Having said that, the Election Commission may get all kinds of strange demands, and they certainly don’t have to oblige all. For example, there is a growing demand from a section of people on replacing EVMs with something more new, potentially an Aadhaar-based voting system.

While the idea sounds good, it might port Aadhaar’s own problems to voting. These demands apart, there are legitimate concerns from voters and political parties regarding EVMs, and the Commission needs to address them.

(Srinivas Kodali is a independent researcher working on data, technology and democracy. He tweets at @digitaldutta. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed in the article are that of the author’s own. The Quint does not advocate nor is responsible for them.)

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