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Enhancing credibility

Enhancing credibility
Recent reports state that the Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi wrote to the Centre last month seeking funds for paper trail voting machines before the 2019 elections. For the uninitiated, the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) devices provide voters with a printout of the candidate they have chosen, so as to avoid any confusion. In the letter, Zaidi said that the commission wanted to deploy the VVPAT machines along with Electronic Voting Machines so that the "transparency of the voting process is enhanced" and "voter's confidence in the process is further strengthened". He added that the procurement "cannot be delayed any longer".

News of this letter comes at a time when sixteen opposition parties urged the Election Commission last week to revert to the paper ballot system, claiming the faith of the people in the electronic voting machines (EVMs) has "eroded". Representatives of parties including Congress, BSP, DMK, Trinamool Congress and the Left met top officials of the Election Commission of India to demand reintroduction of the ballot paper system. They have been complaining that the EVMs currently in use are rigged in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party. One school of thought believes that political parties raising a hue and cry about electoral tampering are behaving like sore losers,

considering the BJP's massive success in recent polls. However, many constitutional experts, including senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, have argued for a paper trail accompanying the electronic voting process, which confirms that the votes have been cast correctly. As discussed in these columns, demands for a return to paper ballots are shortsighted primarily because of the sheer costs and logistical issues involved—their printing, transportation, and their safe storage between elections--not to mention booth capturing. In a state like Uttar Pradesh, however, one also has to confront the problem of scale, as lakhs of ballot boxes are required.

After an election, officials can tally electronically counted votes against paper records, thereby enhancing transparency in the system. In fact, the Supreme Court in 2012 directed the EC to upgrade the EVMs to include a paper trail. "From the materials placed by both the sides, we are satisfied that the "paper trail" is an indispensable requirement for free and fair elections. The confidence of the voters in the EVMs can be achieved only with the introduction of the "paper trail". EVMs with VVPAT (voter-verified paper audit trail) system ensure the accuracy of the voting system.

With intent to have the fullest transparency in the system and to restore the confidence of the voters, it is necessary to set up EVMs with VVPAT system because a vote is nothing but an act of expression which has immense importance in a democratic system," the court said. "If the VVPAT record is verified by the voter to be a faithful reproduction of the vote, is stored securely separate from the EVMs, and is publicly audited after the election, it provides strong independent confirmation that the outcome is correct," says Poorvi L Vora, Professor of Computer Science at The George Washington University, in a recent column for an Indian news website. "A correctly printed VVPAT record indicates merely that the machine correctly understood the vote.

It does not indicate that the vote was correctly recorded or counted. A public audit needs to be performed to determine that the VVPAT records are consistent with the declared election outcome," she goes on to add. The ECI had earlier roundly debunked all allegations of tampering. It presented a detailed explanation about the steps taken to prevent such a thing from happening. As one of the most reputable institutions in this country, one is inclined to take the ECI at its word. However, no EVM can be assumed to be invulnerable to a determined attacker.

In fact, many news outlets had reported that the Election Commission issued a challenge to political parties, and technical experts to prove instances of tampering in EVMs. A similar challenge was issued in by the EC in 2009, but that examination was held under serious restrictions so as to prevent anyone from carrying out any meaningful attack. If reports of an open challenge are right, the EC must be serious about allowing for a complete, unbiased third-party analysis under the reasonable supervision of the government.

The ostensible purpose of any testing should be for the public to understand the EVM design and its vulnerabilities, besides suggesting technical solutions to the various problem the tests may throw up. None of the previous governments could get around this task. In allowing for open testing, within justifiable limits, the current ruling dispensation could enhance its credibility among the masses, and leave the opposition with nothing to complain about. But first, it needs to deliver the necessary funds for the EC as soon as possible.
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