This is how your vote is stolen

Published: May 7, 2019 - 18:43

At the time of writing this analysis, three rounds of the staggered seven-phase general election have been completed. However, much of what was feared from the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) seems to be playing out in different voting booths in diverse parts of the country. Hundreds of thousands of voters have found their names deleted, EVMs have malfunctioned, and the Voter Verified Paper Trail (VVPAT), meant to preserve the EVM’s integrity, has not just stumbled, but also fallen short on its promised seven-second display after the casting of vote. Users report that it is never more than a fleeting three seconds.

In short, the uncanny fear that the votes of Indian citizens in a democracy could be stolen en masse, have got aggravated. The big question is will the final result on May 23, 2019, capture the anger and anxieties of a restive nation or will the mandate be hijacked by an evil cabal of technology influencers, right-wing populists and rabble-rousers, crooked businessmen, and old-fashioned goons and experts at booth-capturing who know how to prevent ordinary people, opposition parties and dissenters from voting.

Arvind Kejriwal complained of the deletion of voters belonging to minority communities and lower castes – all those who are expected to vote against the BJP. Instead of inviting the scrutiny of ethical hackers to fight misgivings, the EC has obfuscated every time flaws have been found in the machines

Many towns in western Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Chennai and scores of cities in other parts of the country have witnessed this sickening phenomenon. It has been seen on TV how inconsolable voters are displaying their ID cards, complaining that their names were removed from the voters’ list. For instance, in Telangana, 30 lakh voters were removed from the electoral list before the assembly polls last November. The Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of the state-owned up to the unprecedented mass deletion, but, except for saying sorry, no amends were made.

Other states showed a similar infirmity in the voters’ list. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also complained of the deletion of voters belonging to minority communities and lower castes – all those who are expected to vote against the BJP.

 

There have been unending complaints of EVMs not working. In Andhra Pradesh, Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu claimed that 4,000 EVMs stopped working. There were allegations of EVM manipulation of every vote – irrespective of which button was pressed in the list of candidates, the vote was going to the BJP.

The Election Commission (EC) has also owned up to the fact that voting was rigged in the first phase in Tripura. This admission flies in the face of its votaries who have been claiming that the voting machines cannot be rigged.

The dogged resistance to free, fair and clean polls is coming from certain EC officials and those who are in power. They seem to be in a hurry to get on with the polling process and thereby return to office.

 

Some machines were showing a proclivity to transfer all the votes in favour of one party – mostly the BJP

 

Ever since the BJP defied opinion polls and ground reports to register runaway wins in the assembly elections to Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat – 20 election petitions were filed after the results in 2017 – there has been trenchant criticism of the EVMs and how they can be subjected to mass manipulation to steal the people’s mandate. BSP leader Mayawati went to court to petition against the EVMs and so did scores of other opposition leaders, but the EC browbeat them into silence.

Instead of inviting the scrutiny of ethical hackers to fight doubts and misgivings of the growing legion of sceptics, the EC has prevaricated and obfuscated every time flaws have been found in the machines or their processes. They have ready explanations when EVMs tactically fail in areas that are preponderantly that of minorities and lower castes or when VVPAT pack up due to heat. EC officials come up with absurd explanations when votes polled on EVMs and votes counted do not match – as happened in many of the seats in the recent assembly elections held in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Apart from technology issues, there are other disturbing happenings that lower the credibility of the EC. This includes deletion of voters as in Telangana and Maharashtra. Most of those who have suffered include members of the minority community.

The integrity of India’s most revered institution, the bedrock of Indian democracy, is being challenged, but for some strange reason it is mired in opacity and bureaucratic cussedness aided and abetted by a section of the media and intelligentsia that sees technology as a panacea for all ills.

At the centre of this controversy that hurts the integrity of the EC is the EVMs which are like black boxes where voters have no clarity whether their votes have got logged or not. This failing of EVMs was brought to the fore by campaigners like Subramanian Swamy who convinced the Supreme Court in 2013 to introduce a paper trail. The VVPAT was the answer to EVMs and all the fears associated with them. The technology entailed a paper slip showing up for seven seconds after each press of a button on the EVM before dropping into a box. Contrary to its commitment to have 50 percent audit, the EC has, bizarrely, allowed audit of only one VVPAT in each constituency.

In a recent Supreme Court order, it has now been raised to random audit of five VVPATs in each assembly segment, which means about 40 VVPATs will be checked in each parliament seat. This is an improvement, but the opposition parties, after absorbing the lessons of the first few phases of polling, want the VVPAT audit to be raised to 50 percent of the EVMs in each parliamentary constituency to increase the chances of catching a contaminated one.

The Supreme Court’s new order is a response to a petition of 21 political parties and 73 civil servants who aired their misgivings before the SC and EC about the fallibility of EVMs and also the statistically farcical audit of one per constituency. They wanted a return to paper ballots as has been done in other advanced democracies. In the interim, they wanted more numbers of VVPATs to be audited – a fact that no one denies; but, inexplicably, the matter has been kept hanging by the EC for quite some time.

Also, there has been no proven data in the public domain about the outcome of these single VVPAT audits that may have taken place in the last few elections. There is no protocol on what would be accepted as the vote of an EVM or of the VVPAT. A lot of its claims are anecdotal or based on the testimony of former CECs, including one that 1,500 VVPATs had shown 100 percent match with EVM votes.

In Telangana, 30 lakh voters were removed from the electoral list before the assembly polls last November

In these times, when the hacking of elections is perceived as an invasion by a foreign nation, as happened in the case of alleged Russian interference with the US presidential election, the VVPAT corroboration was inadequate and disquieting.

Resistance to 50 percent VVPAT audit has fuelled scepticism among many who believe that EVMs are not as foolproof as they are made out to be. As pointed out by researchers and hackers, EVMs can be manipulated at different levels – mostly by those who service these 17.5 lakh machines.

It has been proved, for instance, by Aam Aadmi Party leader Saurabh Bharadwaj that if a contaminated motherboard is implanted during the servicing then the machine will ensure that all the votes go to a single political party. It takes less than a minute to mess with the integrity of the EVMs.

This demonstration was meant to corroborate reports from different parts of the country – sometimes endorsed by returning officers – that some machines were showing a proclivity to transfer all the votes in favour of one party, mostly the BJP. This is a highly disturbing revelation.

Ideally, only one such incident should have been enough for the EC to take a harder look at the machines; but, the EC has a problem. It just does not have the source code of the chip embedded in the control unit of the EVM. As India does not have the capability, the chip is imported from Microchip of the US and Renesas of Japan. The US company is owned by a billionaire Indian, Sanghi, who benefited from a bail-out of a company doing business with the Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation (GSPC). In an RTI reply to a question that was asked about the source code of EVMs, the EC stated that it does not have the information and this information should be with the Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL), the makers of EVMs.

In other words, the EC is blind about what goes into the EVMs.

Surely, the men who currently run the country and who are desperate to return to power at all costs would not be oblivious to the interventions that they should make to control the elections. At a time when the fate of the nation depends on the purity of the democratic electoral process, it is important that not just the Election Commission but also the Supreme Court and all the political parties ensure that the constitutional votes of ordinary Indians is not stolen by a dubious and dictatorial mafia addicted to power for reasons as transparent as their politics.

 

Editor of Delhi's Hardnews magazine and author of Bad Money Bad Politics- the untold story of Hawala scandal.

Read more stories by Sanjay Kapoor

This story is from print issue of HardNews

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