EVMs in India - Another scandal?
#1
A few months ago, I saw this research piece about how electronic items, especially voting machines are susceptible to being gamed:

http://indiaevm.org/

It was pretty astounding news, but as most people haven't heard about it, and the general ignorance about science and technology in India, it is no wonder that nothing seems to be happening.

Then, today I saw this piece:

http://www.hindustantimes.com/rssfeed/ne...92306.aspx

Quote:Govt sniffs 'conspiracy' behind EVM theft

A government official hinted at the possibility of a larger "conspiracy angle" to discredit the country's election process, hinting that the machine may have been taken to a European country. Mumbai police had arrested Hari Prasad (42) in Hyderabad last Saturday in the EVM theft case.

Suspecting a bigger conspiracy, the official said, there seems to be a bigger picture.

"We are conducting a through probe to find out who was actually behind it, why it has been done and whether there is a conspiracy to discredit India's election process," the official said.

A demand was also made in Parliament for an all-party meeting to discuss the "vulnerability" of EVMs.

The BJP has been raising the issue of possibility of tampering of EVMs since general elections 2009. The arrest of Prasad also had political overtones with TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu batting for him.

An official said investigators have found that two Americans and one Dutch national had helped Prasad, technical coordinator of VeTA (Citizens for Verifiability, Transparency and Accountability in Elections), to show how the machine can be tampered with.

Besides, it is suspected that the EVM might have been smuggled out of India, possibly to an European country, deepening the suspicion that there could be a larger "conspiracy angle", the official said.

They needed "investigators" to find who helped him? Shouldn't they know of the indiaevm.org site - it says so clearly there?!

Larger conspiracy angle?! Taking the machine to experts to get it analysed for faults and to show how it is not foolproof is supposed to be a conspiracy? I am quite convinced from their work, that the device is quite the opposite of foolproof. How are Indian election authorities so confident that the machine is infallible and cheat-proof?

Is anyone else as appalled as I am about the proceedings?
Aditya Manthramurthy
Web Administrator & Associate Editor
Nirmukta.com
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#2
A Disclaimer: I don't know much about this, but I'm going to opine anyway. Consider my points at your own academic risk.

I read long ago that the EVMs were proven to be impenetrable by a group of techies within the Election Commission in front of an all party council before it was adopted. Apparently, they have been proving before every election to an all party body. Each time, the all party body has approved the EVM and has given its clean chit. I even read that the efficiency and safety of the machines have even been shown to several panels of experts from India and abroad, and it has passed the test on every occasion. The central feature of the technology is that it is at no point of time connected to an outside network so it cannot be hacked. When the votes are to be counted, the machine itself is broken open in front of multiple representatives and fed into the main machine.

Additionally, whenever any election takes place, representatives of each candidate/party stands in the voting hall and has the official right to stop proceedings if he/she notices anything fishy. The candidates themselves are given a pass and can enter the voting area at any time to inspect proceedings and can haul up any official who he/she wishes if there is even a sniff of conspiracy. The proceedings are very tight on an average.

I don't see how an electoral fraud could happen unless a seemingly large group of people at different levels in hierarchy spread across states and cities conspired together, which is unlikely given the size and diversity of our country. All conspiracies in the past - to the best of my knowledge - have happened only when a small group of people have had lots of power and much to gain.

So far, the results of elections in our country at different levels (I have followed the national one, several state ones, and the district ones in Rajasthan) have followed predictable lines and all parties have had a mixed bag. The results have been in line with different pre election sample opinion surveys. Purely on the basis of observation of the results, I don't sense a fraud.

Having said this, the concerns are really very legitimate. It would be outrageous if there is a conspiracy. A good remedy for this would be leaving a paper trail of the elections along with the digital vote. This could happen if each time one pushes a button, a small chit comes out with the name/symbol of the candidate. The voter could check if the symbol is correct, and then put the chit in a box. When the counting happens, it could first happen using the digital votes (hence time is saved), and then if anyone contests the legitimacy of the results, then the paper chits could be counter to verify. The paper (from the chits) could be recycled after a few years and put to use again in the next election.


EDIT: I'm sorry I digressed. This theft could be anything, including a conspiracy. Maybe some people stole to to figure out how to hack into it. Maybe someone in the media wants to show how it can be broken into. It could easily be a conspiracy. This case is very serious indeed. I hope it works out soon, because I have no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the Election Commission so far. Their track record has been good, so I hope they pursue this to its logical conclusion.
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#3
I want to know whether the EVMs are foolproof. I distinctly remember that immediately after the results of the latest general elections were declared, the losing party spokespersons starting saying that the EVMs are not tamper proof and results can be rigged. Conspiracy theory or not, there should be a proper investigation, as a trend of losing parties crying foul is not desirable in an already flawed democracy.
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#4
Here's the Economic Times' editorial on EVMs in yesterday's paper.

Quote:
Don’t ban electronic voting machines

The Election Commission’s reported move to set up an expert committee to resolve the doubts raised over the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) is welcome. The particular method voters use to exercise their franchise must be beyond reproach and seen as such. Examination by an expert committee will serve to reinforce public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process. Senior BJP leaders whipped up the debate over EVMs after the Lok Sabha polls in 2009. Other political and regional parties have also contended that the EVMs are not tamperproof .

While these could have been dismissed as cries of sour grapes, there is no reason to give similar treatment to the concerns raised by the founder of Net India , Hari Prasad , now on bail, over the manipulation of EVMs. Reports said that the EC did not allow him access to a machine long enough to prove his point. The treatment meted out to Mr Prasad is disgraceful. No machine is perfect.

The makers of EVMs, public sector companies ECIL and BEL, should be open to improvements in the design, if needed, to make EVMs tamper-proof . Proprietary rights on these machines should not militate against transparency needed in the electoral process. The expert committee can also look into the desirability and feasibility of securing a paper trail to back EVMs, as demanded by the BJP.

EVMs are a significant improvement over paper ballots where the business of rigging was easy. They have lowered costs, eliminated invalid votes and made counting easier and faster. However, doubts have been raised about the security, accuracy and reliability of electronic elections in countries such as the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany and the US. The Netherlands banned the use of EVMs in 2006.

In 2009, the Republic of Ireland declared a moratorium on their use. The Supreme Court of Germany ruled that voting through EVMs was unconstitutional as it was much more complex than what the average voter could be expected to comprehend. However, EVMs used in these countries were programmable, which is not the case with the Indian machines. Plans to network the EVMs should be put on hold for the time being.
Aditya Manthramurthy
Web Administrator & Associate Editor
Nirmukta.com
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#5
I just skimmed through the technical paper by Hari Prasad (pdf). Two points stand out:
  1. The EVM has security by obscurity. Nobody was allowed to look at the EVM design citing Intellectual Property concerns.
  2. The vote counts are stored un-encrypted. Which means it is very easy to overwrite them by accessing the memory module.
So the EVMs are not tamper proof. Of course, I don't think any counting system is tamper proof as long as there is a human element involved.

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#6
(07-Oct-2010, 02:38 AM)Lije Wrote: I just skimmed through the technical paper by Hari Prasad (pdf). Two points stand out:
  1. The EVM has security by obscurity. Nobody was allowed to look at the EVM design citing Intellectual Property concerns.
  2. The vote counts are stored un-encrypted. Which means it is very easy to overwrite them by accessing the memory module.
So the EVMs are not tamper proof. Of course, I don't think any counting system is tamper proof as long as there is a human element involved.

Yup, these are pretty much the technical problems involved with EVMs. A human element is definitely required, to build trust in the machine. And the way the EC has been doing it till now is not sufficient. What's the point of testing it with upto a few votes (in front of the EC), when the chip could be programmed to cheat after a few thousand votes?

However, a completely different take is offered by this Times of India Blog (copied below). It is the same rationale, that is given by countries like Germany, that have banned EVMs as unconstitutional. What do you think about using EVMs in India? The machines have made counting simpler, whereas, manual ballot paper counting requires a number of human counters.

Here's the content of the blog:

Quote:EVMs are unconstitutional, even if they work perfectly

One of the distinguishing features of Indian elections over the past decade or so has been the extensive use of voting machines. India is perhaps the only major democracy to have switched over to electronic polling for elections at all levels. This is an undoubtedly an achievement. The use of machines has speeded up the counting process. It has also eliminated invalid votes. Tonnes of paper used in ballot papers are being saved, as is the effort of hundreds of staff deployed in counting them.

Yet, time and again suspicions have been raised their use, including a recent call for an all-party meeting on it. It would be easy to dismiss these concerns. The Election Commission (EC) has always done so. It has rejected the possibility that machines could be tampered with. That may be so. Still, I believe the use of machines is unconstitutional. This is regardless of whether they work properly or not. The technology has been endorsed by the EC and the Supreme Court. It is not the technology I am against. I am for my right as a voter to be sure that my vote has been correctly recorded.

As things stand, the voter is simply being asked to have faith. This is hardly what our founding fathers intended. The ballot paper system was cumbersome but it had the great virtue of being extremely simple. It was capable of being understood by everybody. It did not need an electronics engineer to set up and test. At all stages, voter herself and authorized representatives of EC could personally verify it.

Yes, there are safeguards. The machines are tested before being used. The candidates can send in their representatives during the testing. Even then, the process is not fool-proof. Any engineering student can tell it is possible to manipulate any chip. Indeed, it is possible to replace the chip altogether. They can be programmed to record correctly the first few hundred votes and change things thereafter. Since testing is typically done with only a few dozen votes, such a mischief has slim chance of being detected.

Also, a voter has no means to know how well or how far the machine at her booth has been tested. The process, as it stands today, makes the election- and our democracy- hostage to the integrity of engineers of Bharat Electronics Ltd. While they may be honest, it is not how the Constitution wanted it.

Another ground for rejecting the entirely electronic voting process is that no constitutional functionary understands how it works. From start to finish, only engineers and experts handle it with constitutional authorities coming in only at testing and operating stage. Nobody, from chief election commissioner to state electoral chiefs to returning officers to in-charge of voting booths can really see if everything is working as it should. In case of dispute too, it is engineers who will testify.

The political establishment is beginning to realize this. Some time ago, Orissa assembly was rocked by allegations of machines being manipulated. Now, there is a chorus of voices casting doubts about the process. There is at least one petition pending before the Supreme Court arguing that machines were tampered with.

The questions to consider are these: Does the voter know and can verify her vote has been correctly recorded? No. Do any of the officials conducting know and can independently verify whether each vote has been correctly recorded? No. Is it technically possible to manipulate the machines? Yes.

Hundreds of engineers work on thousands of machines to make them ready before each election. Who is to vouch for integrity of each of them? Even if all of them are certified paragons of virtue, it is just not our constitutional scheme to entrust them the entire electoral process. Finally, is the testing done before polling so thorough and fool-proof that it could detect possibility of all manipulations? No, for the simple reason that electronics is way too advanced to be understood by ordinary people who do the testing.

These questions have kept most advanced democracies from switching over completely to electronic voting. Our EC seems to be in total denial. So, what do we do? Do we give up the machines in favour of ballot paper? There is a better way. All we need to do is to attach a printer to the machine, pretty much like you see attached to credit card swiping machines. It would print for the voter a little paper slip using indelible ink indicating the candidate she has voted for. The voter can thus be satisfied about correct recording of her vote. She can put the slip in a sealed box as she leaves the booth.

The voting can proceed as at present. The result too can be declared based on count produced by the machines. But, it will be a provisional result. The final result can come later when the slips in the sealed box have been counted. In case of difference in two results, the one given by the slips will hold since it will be voter-verified and can easily be checked by any EC representative. A paper trail will make the system tamper-proof.

There would, of course, be some extra expense on printer and paper. Some mandays per constituency for counting the slips would be needed. However, we would still save substantial time and money over the old system. A small slip of paper will be used against huge ballot papers of yore. The manpower needed to count them would also be far less. It is something we need to do. After all, nothing less than our democracy is at stake.
Aditya Manthramurthy
Web Administrator & Associate Editor
Nirmukta.com
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#7
I wonder if it's possible to have machines where people click a button, and then a small receipt comes out, which the voter verifies and then puts it in a ballot box close by. When it is being counted, the electronic votes can be summed up, hence saving time. If fraud is alleged, the paper trail can be counted at a later stage in the form of a recount. The paper can be recycled after three years. So it becomes possible to have the best of both worlds.
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#8
(07-Oct-2010, 05:30 PM)siddharth Wrote: I wonder if it's possible to have machines where people click a button, and then a small receipt comes out, which the voter verifies and then puts it in a ballot box close by. When it is being counted, the electronic votes can be summed up, hence saving time. If fraud is alleged, the paper trail can be counted at a later stage in the form of a recount. The paper can be recycled after three years. So it becomes possible to have the best of both worlds.

Good idea, Siddharth.

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#9
Researchers have developed a pretty reliable E-voting machine. Here it is: http://www.ted.com/talks/david_bismark_e...fraud.html

The whole election system becomes transparent in this system. Looks pretty good to me. What do you all think?

Siddharth Singh found this link.
Aditya Manthramurthy
Web Administrator & Associate Editor
Nirmukta.com
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