The Week
Prathima Nandakumar

Devasahayam and Mehmood Pracha say paper ballot system can be made foolproof

Is India, the largest democracy in the world, relying on a “flawed” and “undemocratic” system of elections using electronic voting machines (EVMs)? 

While civil society groups are waiting to hear from the Supreme Court (hearing on April 16) on the petition seeking to cross-verify the electronic count (of votes) recorded in the EVMs with the print-out of the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) slips, a former bureaucrat and an advocate is questioning the sanctity and integrity of the EVMs in their unique ways.

While former IAS officer M.G. Devasahayam has approached the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC), after the ECI failed to respond to a memorandum (dated May 2, 2022) signed by 112 technocrats, academics, and senior civil servants, raising concerns over the integrity of the EVMs and fairness of the EVM-based elections in India; advocate Mehmood Pracha has taken the plunge into electoral politics to get the first-hand,  an insider view of the electoral system.

Citing the findings of the Citizens Commission of Elections’ report (January 2021), Devasahayam stated that EVM-VVPAT voting and counting does not comply with the essential democratic principle that each voter should be able to verify that her vote is cast and counted as intended, and the current system is not verifiable due to the absence of end to end verifiability. 

“Eminent citizens have also raised concerns over the suitability of EVMs to conduct fair elections as the current system has no way for the voter to verify if the vote is cast as intended by him, recorded as cast by him and most importantly, counted as recorded. Also, the report states there are no provable guarantees against hacking, tampering and spurious vote injections into the current set of EVMs,” said Devasahayam, convener of Forum for Electoral Democracy, who was in Bengaluru on Friday to address the media on the ‘Role of free and fair elections in a democracy’.

“EVMs are banned in developed countries like the US, UK, France and Germany, which have gone back to the paper ballot. But India, being the largest democracy, is following the EVM system of elections. The ECI neither acknowledged the CCE report nor responded to our memorandum seeking clarifications. We made a second appeal before the CIC and that led to the CIC issuing strictures to the ECI to furnish the details within 30 days from the date of hearing (March 19, 2024),” said Devasahayam, adding that it was important for the voters to know the vulnerability of the current system of elections. 

Reading out a set of 17 posers to the ECI, Devasahayam underlined that the VVPAT slip was the “real vote” and not the EVM memory as per the Rule 56D(4)(b) of the Conduct of Election (Amendment) ruled 2013. 

“Yet, ECI is refusing 100 per cent counting of VVPAT slips and counts only the EVM memory. The ECI is maintaining secrecy on the origin of the current set of EVMs and VVPATs without disclosing where they are being procured from, their design and functional integrity. The operational manual of the Symbol Loading Units (SLU) used to transfer the party symbols and the final list of candidates into the EVMs (ballot, control and VVPAT units) is not available in the public domain. After the ECI failed to respond to our queries, we sought information under the RTI Act, but to no avail” explained Devasahayam. 

Earlier, the Association for Democratic Reforms, in its writ petition pending in the Supreme Court, had pleaded that the print-out of the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) slips must be handed over to the voter who, in turn, must be able to deposit them in the VVPAT Box. It further adds that these slips must be counted and cross-verified by the electronic count in the EVMs, in accordance with the directions of the top court in Subramanian Swamy v. Election Commission of India (2013).

Meanwhile, Mehmood Pracha, who has filed his nomination as an independent candidate from Rampur in Uttar Pradesh said, “I wanted to understand the functioning of the EVM-based election and unless you are a candidate, you have no access to the strong room and the processes like uploading of symbols into the ballot box, randomisation (shuffling of EVMs) and a mock poll that happen before the final voting. My experience is that the system is vulnerable and open to manipulation at several stages.”

“I filed for paper ballot in Rampur, as per section 61A of the Representation of People’s Act. But, the ECI did not honour it and instead announced EVM-based voting across all 543 seats. I filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court as the ECI reasoned that both the poll personnel and electors were conversive with EVMs. This is despite the fact that voters and candidates have expressed doubts over the integrity of EVMs. I catalogued my step-by-step struggle to document proof of the inherent incurable faults of the EVM, and the colossal failure of the ECI to even implement its own faulty system,” said Pracha, who has urged candidates interested in free and fair elections to study and understand methods to stop electoral “frauds and manipulations”, while appealing to opposition parties to hold “mass and peaceful” protests to “save democracy”.

Stating that the paper ballot is the gold standard for elections, Pracha said, “The first randomisation or mixing of EVMs was done even in the absence of the candidates, while the second randomisation was not physically done but displayed only a TV screen, where the list of booths and EVMs was matched. The commissioning of EVMs in the strong rooms was done in my absence as they had misled me to go to another centre. On my return, I found the EVMs were in unsealed condition. The symbol loading procedure was hideous too as they were at the Chief Electoral Officers’ office in unsealed condition and no user manual was given to the candidates. Each Lok Sabha constituency is allotted 10 engineers to upload the symbols and we do not know their credentials.”

“Reverting to a paper ballot is not retrogressive as the ECI wants us to believe. With the advent of new technology, a paper ballot system can be upgraded to make it foolproof and ensure fair elections,” asserted Devasahayam.

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