India, the world’s second most populous country, is about to embark on a mammoth democratic exercise—the Lok Sabha elections, with 900 mn eligible voters. The Election Commission (EC) announced that the upcoming general and state assembly elections will be conducted using EVMs only, this despite repeated clamour from many fronts to abandon the machines in favour of a return to the paper ballots. Opposition parties and others who had urged for the EVMs to be done away with, had done so based on the alleged malfunctioning of the machines in recent elections. The EC, however, has dismissed all allegations of malfunction.
The EVMs have in fact lessened the burden on the EC and election officers—there’s lesser individual labour required (in managing and tallying paper ballots) and it has cut down on the use (and wastage) of paper.
Understanding the EVM
EVMs were first used in 1982 for the North Paravur assembly by-election in Kerala at a fixed number of polling stations. In 1989, the EC approved the use of EVMs extensively through a joint project with Bharat Electronics Limited and Electronics Corporation of India. At the national level, EVMs were first used in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections after broad consultations with relevant stakeholders and have since become an imperative part of our electoral system.
It is crucial to understand how the EVM works. For starters, it resembles a number cruncher. It tallies the number of votes polled per candidate, but it doesn’t know who the candidates are. It only recognises switches. The placement of political parties’ symbols and candidates change at every voting booth. To tackle the possibility of the machines being tampered with at a predetermined booth, the EVM arrangement is randomised twice, once at the constituency level and then at the polling station. Now, if an EVM does malfunction, the polling station officer can replace it with a new one.
Yet, the most crucial question remains—when other countries are rejecting or giving up on the EVM, why does India continue to stand by it?
Despite many countries that have banned the use of EVMs, this does not mean the machines are not being used at all elsewhere. EVMs are used in a significant number of US states and in Brazil. Nevertheless, the fact remains that a considerable number of the Western countries use paper ballots because they have relatively small populations and it is easier to manage.
VVPATs to the rescue
Taking all doubts about the EVMs into account, the EC announced that in the upcoming general elections, voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) would be used in all polling booths. VVPAT is a trustworthy framework by which the voter knows whom they has voted for. The voter places their vote slip into a container, which can be recovered if any discrepancy arises.
The VVPAT has a printer that is connected with the EVM. VVPAT slips are noticeable for seven seconds behind the screen. Slips are printed on thermal paper, which remains clear for at least five years.
VVPATs have already been used in multiple assembly and parliamentary polling booths, and have proved to be extremely useful.
Returning to ballot paper is retrograde
There are many reasons why a return to paper ballots will be a backward move in a country like India, but two key reasons stand out:
First, moving to EVMs was a green move. An estimated 10,000 tons of poll paper is required if votes are to be cast through ballot, and this number would only increase in subsequent elections. The trees are being spared and how! EVMs are undoubtedly a far more eco-friendly option.
Second, the use EVMs has ensured a drastic reduction in incidents of booth capturing and violence. Booth capturing was rampant when ballot papers were being used since it was easier to tamper with. This has changed with the introduction and widespread use of EVMs.
Besides, EVMs are also a more economical option compared to paper ballots.
There have been many allegations in recent time with regard to EVMs, and while it is important for the EC to address these concerns, abandoning EVMs in favour of paper ballots is not the solution. Instead, it should look to integrate the voting system with secure technologies like blockchain.
Sagar Vishnoi is a political consultant and co-founder of Govern (a governance innovation lab).
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