On Friday, April 12, the Supreme Court agreed to review a plea by a whopping 23 Opposition parties on random checks for electronic voting machines (EVMs). These parties propose that 50% of all EVMs in every constituency be randomly verified by voter verified paper audit trails (VVPAT).
The Congress, Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Samajwadi Party, Communist Party of India (CPI), and CPI (Marxist) held a ‘Save Democracy’ press conference to say that they were concerned about transparency and fairness in this election.
According to NDTV, TDP Chief Chandrababu Naidu said, “We are raising doubts about the EVMs. The confidence of the voter can only be restored through paper trail machines.”
Naidu even criticised the Election Commission (EC) for being “insensitive, unrealistic, irresponsible, and useless”.
Previous SC order on EVMs
Earlier, on April 8, the SC passed an order to increased VVPAT verification to cover five random EVMs in each Assembly segment and constituency during the general elections, although the petitioning parties wanted 50% of the EVMs to be covered instead.
A previous EC order allowed for only one EVM in each assembly segment and constituency to be verified by VVPAT. However, the last SC order increased that number to five because, anything more was not viable as it would delay the declaration of results by six days.
The April 8 SC order was carried out “to ensure the greatest degree of accuracy, satisfaction in election process”, said the bench. Now, 23 parties have requested a higher proportion to be reviewed by VVPATs.
How do EVMs and VVPATs work?
The Indian Express explains that EVMs are machines used to cast votes electronically and anonymously. A voter presses a button against the name and symbol of the desired candidate.
These machines run on batteries and can be deployed in rural areas that do not have electricity. The machine also contains a control unit that is in the hands of a polling officer, who turns on the machine for voters.
People are concerned that EVMs can be tampered with. Although it is difficult to do, these machines can be hacked wirelessly or through the control unit.
Researchers have found that microprocessing chips designed with the EVMs software and placed in the machine can override the data collected by the machine. To tamper with it wirelessly, some experts say that they can intercept the EVMs signals through a radio receiver.
However, the Indian Express explains that hacking EVMs is not easy to pull off because it requires large-scale, expensive planning.
On the other hand, after a voter presses the button for the desired candidate on the VVPAT machine, the machine will generate a paper slip with the vote that election officials are required to store in sealed envelopes.
The VVPAT also has a control unit that polling officers use to ensure that voters are allowed to vote only once.
After the first phase of polling ended in Andhra Pradesh, the TDP called foul. The party approached the EC with claims that 157 polling booths had dysfunctional EVMs.
“The government of India is interfering through the EC. We have complained against EVMs earlier also. EC is an autonomous body but they are working under the instructions of Modi”, said Naidu to ANI.
Concerns of EVM tampering date back ten years to 2009, when BJP leader LK Advani demanded that ballot papers be reintroduced in Maharashtra’s state elections. The Congress, ruling party at the time, rubbished Advani’s claims.
In 2017, however, when the BJP won a majority in the Uttar Pradesh assembly, the Opposition said the EVMs were tampered with.
AAP Chief Arvind Kejriwal has also accused the EC of being an instrument of the BJP. He has even asked why India relies so heavily on EVMs when other developed countries like Germany and the Netherlands also use VVPATs.
The EC has always denied allegations of EVMs tampering. But in 2017, after the Bombay High Court allowed for some EVMs in Pune to be examined, it ruled out any tampering.
There has otherwise been no conclusive, independently-gathered proof that EVMs in India can be hacked or tampered with or have been in the past.
Other election issues
Beyond parties calling foul over apparently vulnerable voting machines, voters themselves have complained about voting lists.
The Bangalore Mirror reported that of five crore registered voters, 15,000 have been removed from voting lists due to change in address, death or other reasons. Retired cricketer, Rahul Dravid, who is also an EC ambassador, is among those whose names have been deleted.
“In order to ensure that one’s name stays in the voters list even after change in address, one must fill the available forms on the website of the Chief Electoral Officer”, said KN Ramesh, Additional Chief Electoral Officer of Karnataka.
The Times of India has also reported that in Uttarakhand, Opposition parties alleged that names of Dalits and other minorities have been removed from voting lists.
The CPI, CPI(M), Samajwadi Party, and Congress said that after conducting a poll survey of people who had voter ID cards, they found that 12.5% of those voters were not on the list.
“Of these 90% were Dalits or minorities. If the same proportion applies across the state among Dalits alone, more than 1,36,000 people will not be able to vote in the upcoming elections”, said Shankar Gopalakrishnan of Chetna Andolan, the surveying organisation.
To the parties alleging removal of names and tampering of EVMs, the BJP has maintained that they are only creating noise because they are worried about a defeat in the polls.
What’s next for the Opposition?
There is no official word yet on whether the Supreme Court will hear the Opposition’s requests. Whether or not the Opposition is motivated by partisan interests, the EC and other election instruments are being held to the promise of free and fair elections.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius.
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