The EVM Conundrum - Has The Supreme Court Intervention Helped Mitigate The Issue?

The EVM Conundrum - Has The Supreme Court Intervention   Helped Mitigate The Issue?

"To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers. One who does not vote has no right to complain." - Louis L'Amour

Elections are the fulcrum of a functional democracy.

The EVM conundrum raises a perplexing yet pertinent question - If a citizen is not allowed to cast a vote, thanks to his/her name missing from the electoral list or if the vote cast is manipulated with, isn't it synonymous to he/she being deprived of a chance to participate in an inclusive democracy and is thus rendered a mute spectator in what should ideally be a participative democracy?

By not being able to exercise one's franchise, has the candidate been reduced to a tax paying machine, who has no authority to elect the representative who would eventually legislate how that money he/she pays as taxes should be spent?

The Supreme Court had an unparalleled opportunity to resolve several issues and dispel the fear surrounding EVM Tampering but has failed to instill confidence in the general public by announcing just a few cosmetic changes to the existing system of validating votes. The Supreme Court which indulges itself in trivial matters should not have displayed a lackadaisical attitude in a matter of such significance where citizens elect the vanguards of democracy.

EVM Tampering - An Insight

EVMs can be tampered with at several levels (Manufacturing, Distribution and Storage) and in several layers (Microcontroller chip level, at the Peripheral Interface, in the Memory Storage Units and at the Firmware level).

Tampering the Firmware:

One of the ways to tamper an EVM is by changing the firmware to suit the vested interests of the party indulging in this nefarious act. Since it takes less than two minutes to program the EVM with a new firmware and with minimum resources, this could be easily done in every polling booth.

The firmware could be designed in such a way that the first 200-300 votes are cast in favour of the deserving candidate, but eventually transfer all the votes to a particular candidate. At a more granular level, the firmware could be designed to transfer votes of only Independent candidates (or less popular candidates) in favour of a particular candidate. By incorporating this technique one would be able to ensure that the EVMs would pass the initial tests/trial runs conducted by the Election Commission but would eventually begin to operate as per the whims and fancies of the tamperer.

Also, the belief that all votes go to a single political party may be misplaced. The manipulated source code can be written in such a way that one in every five votes are transferred to a party of their choice. In very closely fought constituencies, where margin of victory is minuscule, one in ten votes being transferred to the preferred candidate could make all the difference between victory and loss.

Typically in places where there are multiple independent candidates, this manipulation can be easily camouflaged. It may be noted here that EVM manipulation will work best in constituencies where the fight is very close.

Solution: Just like in cricket matches, where the captain of the team can ask for the review of a decision, the Supreme Court should have allowed Booth Coordinators to test the EVMs at regular intervals of time, meaning running a random test of sample votes to check the sanctity of the machine. In case the EVMs are tampered, there is a likelihood that a vote may be transferred to the wrong party and could be detected during these random tests.

Tampering the Hardware:

Since the input medium is a keypad, which in turn is hardwired to the microcontroller, it is very easy to tamper an EVM. All it takes is a soldering iron to switch the pins to which the keypad is connected to, thus transferring all the votes to a particular candidate. The process of manipulation should not take more than a few seconds.

The software remains the same, but since the code within the microcontroller is blindly polling the pins, it is unaware as to which key has been pressed and transfers the votes to the same party irrespective of which key has been pressed.

Solution: This kind of tampering is typically done when EVMs malfunction and are either repaired on premise or replaced. Checking the integrity of the repaired or replaced EVMs should have been mandated by the Supreme Court. Repeated failure of EVMs during rlections should have raised several eyebrows, since most appliances that we use on a daily basis like Mobile Phones, TV sets, Set-Top boxes, Refrigerators, Washing Machines etc, all have an embedded chip inside them but hardly fail despite daily usage.

Tampering the Memory:

Data regarding the number of votes cast to each political party is registered in a non-volatile memory - EEPROM (ideally). The Data stored in the microcontroller memory or an external memory can be modified through a simple script. All it takes is a laptop connected to one of the ports(USB or UART or SPI or I2C) of the microcontroller. This can be done in less than a minute and is most likely to be done when the EVMs are stored in the strong room.

Solution: This issue can be resolved by closely monitoring the EVMs in the strong room by ensuring only authorized personnel are allowed inside the strong room and their activities within the strong room are monitored via CCTV Cameras. Live footage, accessible to all stakeholders, is quintessential in this case.

Pattern Recognition As A Useful Tool For Identifying EVM Tampering

Once the Votes have been counted and results declared, Data Analysis tools can help unearth potential malpractices. Several data analysis tools are available to monitor and decipher any discrepancies. Closely contested seats and those with large number of contestants are most prone to EVM manipulation. Instead of validating the EVM count with the VVPAT slips in randomly selected booths, the Supreme Court should have given the choice of selecting the booths to the political parties. The Supreme Court could have decided on the maximum number of booths per constituency where the verification could be conducted but the choice of booth should have been left to the political parties.

EVM Discrepancies: Year-Wise RTI Details Reveal Further Mismatches

In a reply to right to information queries, the contradictions between the buyer and suppliers of electronic voting machines (EVMs) in India have been laid bare. In year-wise details, replies given by the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the two public sector suppliers -- Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL) Hyderabad and Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL), Bengaluru -- have thrown up inexplicable discrepancies. These discrepancies should have necessitated the Supreme Court to bring in more transparency and accountability in Manufacturing, Assembly, Dispatch, Stock Management, Installation and Storage of the EVMs. All political parties could have been made stakeholders in ensuring checks and balances are put in place. However, it is interesting to note that the Supreme Court did not find it relevant to ensure utmost accountability with regards to the same.

Servicing Of Faulty EVMS:

The contracts given to agencies for servicing the EVMs during elections or post elections must be closely scrutinized by a body consisting of all stakeholders. The frequency at which EVMs fail on election day raises some serious questions. An Audit report needs to be prepared and provided by Election Commission citing the various reasons why the EVMs were found to be faulty and what were the steps taken to repair/replace them. VVPAT Slip Verification should be mandated in all the booths where EVM failure has been detected.

Standard Operating Procedure:

Post elections, there have been repeated incidents where Election Commission officials have been seen walking around with EVMs in private places not adhering to the standard operating procedures. Issuing a Code of Conduct to all officials involved in the electoral process and ensuring stringent action against those violating the procedures would have inculcated some fear and discipline among the staff. However, to our dismay even this was ignored by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court should have laid down strict guidelines to the Election Commission in procurement of components from vendors, assembling of the components, the programming of the chipsets, logistics, installation of the EVMs at the booths and storage of EVMs post elections. Putting systems in place, introducing a greater level of transparency and ensuring active participation of all the stakeholders in the electoral process would have left few to complain about post declaration of the results. However, the Supreme Court has failed to bring about any systemic changes to the prevalent system.

The diminishing confidence of citizens in all the pillars of democracy and also in premier institutions, should have acted as a lamp-post for the Supreme Court in passing a judgment which would instill confidence in the electorate and laid to rest the frequent bickering of political parties. This could have been accomplished by ensuring utmost transparency in the electoral process and by making all the political parties stakeholders in the entire electoral process. However, the SC has left us with much to be desired.

(Author is the Founder of 3 Start–Ups ; Passionate About Technology, Available at srinivas.discuss@gmail.com)