Yogesh Sapkale

In 2009, Germany, technologically one of the most advanced nations, ended electronic voting with the Federal Constitutional Court finding that the inability to have meaningful public scrutiny meant that electronic voting was unconstitutional. Stressing the need for transparency, constitutional judge Andreas Vosskuhle noted that "The use of voting machines which electronically record the voters' votes and electronically ascertain the election result only meets the constitutional requirements if the essential steps of the voting and the ascertainment of the result can be examined reliably and without any specialist knowledge of the subject... The very wide-reaching effect of possible errors of the voting machines or of deliberate electoral fraud make special precautions necessary in order to safeguard the principle of the public nature of elections."

Nearly 15 years down the road, 20 election cybersecurity experts have highlighted the uncertainty or opaqueness of electronic machinery used in elections. Andrew Appel, Eugene Higgins Professor of Computer Science from Princeton University, shepherded the public comment (letter) signed by these election cybersecurity experts. The letter says, "The (election) process must be transparent, so the public may be assured the winners won and the losers lost."

"We believe that no system is perfect, with each having trade-offs. Hand-marked and hand-counted ballots remove the uncertainty introduced by the use of electronic machinery and the ability of bad actors to exploit electronic vulnerabilities to remotely alter the results," the letter says.

According to these experts, technology introduces the means of efficient tabulation but also introduces a manifold increase in complexity and sophistication of the process. "This places the understanding of the process beyond the average person's understanding, which can foster distrust. It also opens the door to human or machine error, as well as exploitation by sophisticated and malicious actors."

While the letter is addressed to the Pennsylvania state senate committee on government in response to a request for policy advice, the points highlighted by these security experts apply in any State where electronic machines are being used for elections. "Rather than assert that each component of the process can be made perfectly secure on its own, we believe the goal of each component of the elections process is to validate every other component."

"Consequently, we believe that the hallmarks of a reliable and optimal election process are hand-marked paper ballots, which are optically scanned, separately and securely stored, and rigorously audited after the election but before certification," the letter says.

Coming back to India, earlier this month, the Supreme Court agreed to list a bunch of petitions seeking direction to the election commission of India (ECI) to mandatorily cross-verify the count in electronic voting machines (EVMs) with votes verifiably recorded as cast by counting all voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) slips ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.

At present, verification is done only for five randomly selected EVMs through the VVPAT slips. The petitioners, including the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), seek to count all VVPAT slips.

According to a report from The Hindu, justice Sanjiv Khanna, who heads the bench, assured senior counsel Kapil Sibal, Prashant Bhushan, Gopal Sankaranarayanan and advocate Neha Rathi, all appearing for various petitioners, including ADR, that the case would be listed the third week of April. 

On 19 April 2024, 102 parliamentary constituencies in 21 states and Union Territories (UTs) will go to the polls during the first phase of Lok Sabha elections.

In 2013, the apex court, while hearing a petition filed by Dr Subramanian Swamy, while holding that a paper trail is an indispensable requirement of free and fair elections, directed ECI to introduce VVPAT in EVMs.

Interestingly, ECI continues to assure that EVMs can neither be hacked nor tampered with. While ruling out the re-design of VVPAT, it says, "The EVMs are 'totally stand-alone machines having one-time programmable chips'. "

Many critics, including political parties like Congress, have demanded a 100% recount of all VVPATs instead of the current method of sampling the number of recounts to have full transparency. 

However, in an editorial, The Hindu says, "An increase in the recount sample to make it more statistically significant, by making the selected number of assemblies specific to each state or Union territory (UT) based on the size of the province, or, simply to increase the recount sample in seats where the margin of victory is narrow (say, less than 1% of the overall votes) could be solutions. But to insist on a full recount seems an overkill and a clear lack of trust in the EVM itself."

However, the election cybersecurity experts point out some unavoidable technology limitations. They say, "Computers (including voting machines) are capable of being hacked or misprogrammed (software bugs). No cybersecurity fixes can effectively and totally prevent this with high confidence. Hacked (or misprogrammed) voting machines can deliberately (or mistakenly) miscount or misrecord votes. When not hacked or misprogrammed, computers can be accurate and efficient tools for counting votes. No audit process can reliably detect or correct faults that make their way into the final paper ballot pool."

"While we have not identified evidence sufficient to justify the overturning of prior elections, neither can we rule out the possibility that malicious and sophisticated actors exploited voting machine vulnerabilities with sufficient skill as to conceal their tampering. Therefore, existing vulnerabilities in current voting systems urgently need to be addressed. States must act to reduce those vulnerabilities, both to provide higher assurance of accurate elections and to minimise controversies in the future," the letter says.

Having said that, these experts also observe that humans counting votes by hand can itself be a source of inaccuracy or create opportunities for fraud. 

"The overriding principle is that elections must produce reliable evidence that their outcomes—who gets elected, which ballot questions pass—reflect the will of the voters," the letter concludes.

Almost 970mn (million) Indians would vote during the Lok Sabha elections starting from 19th April. Voters are not just pided as to which party or candidate to vote for; they also have different opinions about using EVMs. While pointing out the lack of transparency in the entire process, many raise doubts about EVMs and the voting and counting process. But, except for the Supreme Court, I doubt anyone is even ready to listen to these concerns and take remedial steps to strengthen confidence in the election process. 

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