Electronic Voting Machine

Vishal Kale | Founder | Kale & Shinde Associates, Law Firm

A decade ago, the ballot paper method used for voting in the elections in India was replaced by electronic voting machines (popularly known as the EVMs). The voters until a decade ago used (and even today the voters in many western countries use) paper sheet with a list of candidates and their election symbols to exercise their democratic right to elect their leader. The voter used a rubber stamp to mark his or her single choice on the ballot paper that would be folded in a specified manner and inserted in the ballot box. Multiple stamps or a stamp at the wrong place meant an invalid vote. The manual counting of votes by numerous staff would take days. The EVMs have changed all that.
The EVM is a simple, stand-alone machine with the list of candidates, their respective symbols, and a button against each name on its panel. The citizen votes by simply pressing the button of his or her chosen candidate. Each act of pressing the button produces an electrical pulse that is electronically counted for each candidate. After the voting at a particular booth is completed, the number of ‘votes’ received by each candidate (as a series of electrical pulses) is extracted by connecting a cable to the EVM and transferred to the consolidated database that promptly produces the election results. The EVM system operates on an ordinary 6-volt alkaline battery and hence, it works as a stand-alone system with no external interference.
While the design, construction, operation, logistics, and safety of an EVM is a matter of technical and administrative details, the public, the candidates, and political parties are concerned about the reliability of these machines. Like every sophisticated gadget the EVM system, including cables, other accessories, and controllers, also needs physical security. The Election Commission swears by the reliability of the EVMs, and all its challenges to demonstrate tampering of the EVMs have remained unanswered. However, not surprisingly, the losing parties often doubt the EVMs as being prone to errors and manipulation.
To build greater confidence in the EVMs, the Election Commission of India introduced an additional feature, called the Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system to the EVMs. The VVPAT system is like a paper-based verification of whether a given EVM functioned correctly. It can record each vote cast by generating a paper slip, called EVM slip. The system was introduced in all 543 Lok Sabha constituencies in the general elections held in 2019. Of course, printing out all the votes would render the whole process of electronic voting as redundant, hence a random test of printing out electronic voting slips should establish the correctness of the process.
However, the doubts over the EVMs continue: that an EVM can be hacked, it can tamper, it can be used to manipulate results, and so on. However, one forgets that even for any such attempt one must have unrestricted physical access to a complete EVM system. Election Commission has ensured that an individual or party representative cannot be with its electronic ballot unit for more than a few seconds, and an authorized officer’s operation is limited to only setting the accessible language on it in the presence of all stakeholders. No one has the authority or opportunity to remove and to access an embedded chip (an integrated circuit) that is coded and fixed inside the EVM. The chip itself is sealed in silicone gel at the time of manufacturing itself, and therefore, it is impossible to extract, manipulate, and restore it without leaving glaring evidence of tampering. Hence, there is no question of a person being capable of ‘tampering’ or ‘hacking’ the EVM or of ‘capturing’ the EVM data.
Various claims have been made to say that EVMs can be hacked. Many such claims are made through videos on WhatsApp and other social media. All of these videos are to our knowledge are edited videos. The persons offering such claims no information to the public at large as to how the alleged hacking was achieved or which version of the machine (M1/M2) was used.
Academic theories may be used to spin a story that every electric/electronic device can be hacked and results manipulated. Nevertheless, for such an action the primary requirement is the ability to communicate with the machine or to intercept the communication between the EVM and control unit, which is not possible in the present scenario. It is a tried-and-tested system, and there is no doubt about the reliability of an EVM across neutral forums.
There exists a secured and thoroughly maintained time-stamped log of every event related to each EVM: whether it is switched ON or OFF and whether each serial value associated with an operation matches with what is called the ‘#’ (hash) value of the program before the machine is allocated for the poll. Any mismatch in the hash value throws the concerned EVM out of polling booth race.
For the sake of argument let us ask what if some master-mind genius adds some microchip to intercept and change the data in the EVM in advance. Well, for that purpose, the ‘genius’ must have all the names of candidates in advance. Ballot unit or the EVM has the list of names in alphabetical order and not as per the party names. Not all parties contest at all constituencies. Further, the secured software used by the Election Commission to keep a track of the EVMs randomizes the EVM and control systems. That is to say, the same ballot unit will never be with the same control unit again for a lifetime, and hence a physical insertion into the hardware as an attempt to tamper cannot be successful. For this to happen, the software in the embedded mother chip cannot be accessed; even if accessed, it cannot communicate with any other device or data or command because it does not know any other language than what is embedded at the time of manufacturing. Nor is there any open communication channel. The machine itself has no fixed destination known to anyone beforehand.
Added to this technical protection is the physical protection in the form of a strong locked case – supervision of the returning officers, continuous surveillance, monitoring by representatives nominated by political parties and polling agents of each candidate, the ever-vigilant media, mock polls, and the three-tier armed protection ensured independently by Election Commission empowered under the Constitution of India – that leaves no loophole in the physical security of the EVMs. Under these conditions, even if someone claims an ability to tamper the EVM, not established so far, he or she cannot physically access it in the first place. Therefore, no one can manipulate the result of an election, which is spread across several booths and centers across the entire constituency.
To put the controversy to rest, the Election Commission had organized a hackathon that became a much-discussed event. Nobody could meet the challenge. In separate media events where some activists claimed to hack the EVMs, the models used by those self-proclaimed soldiers of democracy only bore some resemblance to the existing EVMs. They did not carry the chips used by the Election Commission units, which are encoded at the manufacturing level.
The legal battles
The general confidence in the EVMs, however, has not deterred the losing candidates from dragging the matter to the courts. I had the opportunity to defend the EVM-based result in the Election Petition No. 15 of 2014 before Bombay High Court at Mumbai, wherein tampering of the EVM was alleged. This also allowed me to study and learn about the EVM processes closely and in detail. The Hon’ble High Court referred the concerned EVM to the Central Forensic Sciences Laboratory, a branch of the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Laboratory, after conducting detailed tests, issued an unambiguous report that the concerned EVM had not tampered. The Hon. The high court in their judgment has stated that report sent by the Central Forensic Science Laboratory, Hyderabad (CFSL, Hyderabad) dated 19.6.2017. In the said report, the analysts have mentioned that there is no evidence of tampering, altering or any other manipulation that could be detected. This report was accepted by the contesting litigant and the matter finally came to rest.
The judgment in Election Petition No. 15 of 2014 is considered a landmark judgment in the EVM controversy. In this judgment, the Hon’ble High Court laid down guidelines for the use of VVPAT. Many writ petitions across various High Courts in India have been decided based on this judgment. Needless to say, the allegations of hacking of the EVMs have not been proved in any court of law to date.
Compared to the ballot boxes and manual counting of votes of the yesteryears, the EVMs collate the voting data digitally at a lightning speed, which helps immediate announcement of the results. In the event of any mismatch of recorded votes versus the counted votes, the option of recounting is always available. Hence instead of manual counting, which is highly prone to human error, India with its large electorate uses modern technology to save time and paper, as also to conduct elections without errors in a free and fair manner. It helps us to smoothly and successfully conduct the elections of the largest democracy of the world.
About the Author – Advocate and Arbitrator Vishal V Kale, Partner: Kale And Shinde Associates Law Firm
Vishal completed his law studies in 2001. He grew up inspired and influenced by his father, who was an eminent lawyer in his prime. Watching him interact with clients of different backgrounds who came with an issue and left with a happy heart, always appealed to Vishal. Once he started practicing, his acumen led him to realize how giant property dealers have to run around to different lawyers for different issues. Hence, he decided to pursue law as a profession.

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