Electronic Voting Machines: the Common Enemy in India's Elections?

A coalition of seventy-three former civil officers have written an open letter to address the electronic voting machine (EVM) deficiencies, specifically with the usage of verifiable voter paper audit trail (VVPAT) aspect of the process. VVPATs serve as a physical record of all of the votes processed in an election. This letter has signatures from high ranking officials, including former national security advisor Shivshankar Menon, former foreign secretary Nirupama Menon Rao, and former IAS officer Aruna Roy.

The former officials have stated that a parallel VVPAT tally of the electronic voting machine results are necessary to guarantee the election’s legitimacy, as “‘it is common knowledge that EVMs are ‘black boxes’ in which it is impossible for voters to verify whether their votes have been recorded and counted correctly’.” The effectiveness of EVMs has been questioned after every election, as the losing party claims that “manipulated EVMs” are the cause of the results. There will be over 1 million polling stations across the country and over 2 million electronic voting machines for this election.

While this is the most recent development in the EVM discussion, there was also a petition filed on March 14th by 23 opposition parties that asked for the verification of at least 50% EVMs using VVPAT in every Assembly faction or constituency. The opposition coalition stated that they represent 70% to 75% of the country’s population electorally, and the petition was submitted under Telegu Desam Party leader N. Chandrababu Naidu, Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, and Indian National Congress K.C. Venugopal, among others. The Indian Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, ordered the Election Commission to respond to this petition with an officer to appear for a hearing on March 25th.  

This petition stated that as fair elections are outlined in the Indian Constitution, the proper steps need to be taken to ensure that this aspect was being protected. It also addressed the outcome of the Dr. Subramaniam Swamy case in 2013, which “held that the paper trail for EVM has been held to be an indispensable requirement of free and fair elections, thereby making VVPAT inherent in and intrinsic to the very basic structure.” The petition stated that the Election Commission was not abiding with the Constitution because of the VVPAT’s inefficiency and their reluctance to address it.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) responded to this petition in Supreme Court, and opposed its stance that 50% of EVM votes should be cross checked with VVPATs before election results are determined. The ECI had previously decided that they would check one randomly selected booth of a constituency, a stark contrast to the petition is asking for. According to the petitioners, the ECI’s decision would only consider 0.44% of polled votes.

 On April 1st, the Supreme Court gave the petitioning opposition parties until April 8th to respond to the Election Commission’s recent affidavit. It states that increasing random verification with VVPAT to 50% would delay the results by six days. The Hindu reported, “Observing that the current confidence level in EVM-VVPAT accuracy was 99.9936%, the ECI said any increase in the sample size of verification of VVPAT slips would only lead to a “very negligible gain in the confidence level”. The ECI further stated that there is no statistical basis to increasing the number of random verifications, and there have been zero mistakes in the sample verifications thus far. This publicized scrutiny over the legitimacy of the electronic voting machines has sparked a significant amount of hesitation for voters, and has caused doubt over the legitimacy of the upcoming elections.