As I have been saying over the past few days, the Election Commission is clearly under pressure. They better be. Not only have they stopped making irrational claims about EVMs over the past month, they have begun a clean-up exercise to overcome some of the of EVM security lapses.
In a seven page communiqué to all state CEOs dated May 3, 2010, the Election Commission had directed all states to undertake a physical audit of all electronic voting machines (EVMs) in their custody. The detailed guidelines in this regard can be accessed at http://eci.nic.in/eci_main/CurrentElections/ECI_Instructions/ins310510.pdf
The specific directions are as follows:
I) A committee consisting of officer nominated by Deputy Election Officer (not below the rank of Sub-Divisional Magistrate), Election Supervisor and Warehouse-in-charge of EVMs shall be constituted for every district.
II) This committee shall carry out 100% physical verification of EVMs in the district. 100% physical verification for the current year shall be completed before 30th May, 2010. Details of all EVMs in the district shall be entered in Master Stock Register (MSR). MSR shall be maintained warehouse-wise for every district. Every EVM in the district whether in working condition or not must be entered in the MSR.
III) After complete physical verification of EVMs and entry of their details in the MSR, the Committee shall certify on the MSR that physical verification of EVMs has been carried out and the details of all EVMs available in the district have been entered in the MSR of respective warehouse as well as in the Ledger of EVMs.
iv) 100% physical verification of EVMs shall be carried out by the Committee every quarter in the months of January, April, July and October so that the report of the same is made available to the Commission through the CEO of the concerned States/UTs by 20th of the next month.
v) If there is an election during the year, the DEO shall carry out 100% physical verification of EVMs during the First Level Checking of the EVMs and send the report to the Commission through Chief Electoral Officer.
vi. EVM storage warehouse must not have more than one entry point. If there are any other doors or windows in the warehouse, they should be sealed using brick-masonry or concrete.
This is clearly an outcome of the recent collaborative scientific study by Hari Prasad (MD, NetIndia), Rop Gonggrijp (Security expert, Netherlands) and Alex Halderman (Professor, University of Michigan). The study’s conclusion that the Indian EVMs are vulnerable to fraud if they became accessible to criminals even momentarily has shaken the confidence of the Election Commission and its experts in the Indian EVMs.
At present, the ECI has no proper record of its own EVMs stored in a decentralised manner in districts. The security of EVMs was a major concern for the ECI only when it was election time. No elaborate guidelines or storage procedures were prescribed for the storage of EVMs. The ECI’s concern for EVMs began only six months before April-May, 2009 elections to Parliament.
Questioned about this apparent lack of seriousness over security of EVMs, the ECI and its expert committee members argued until a few months ago that functionality ‘mock’ tests offer protection against manipulations and that it was not possible to influence so many officials and gain access to the EVMs.
Though the initiative taken by the ECI is welcome, it is too little to offer much protection against manipulation possibilities of electronic voting machines. The ECI’s concept of security of EVMs, it appears, is no more than preparing registers, putting jointly operated locks and issuance of certificates by officials. What can the taluka officials detect in a physical audit of the voting machines? How would they know if the EVMs in their custody have been tampered with? What can they do except take a physical count how many ballot and control units are there in their custody?
What the Election Commission needs to do at the very least is to commission a third party technical audit covering both the hardware and software examination of the EVMs.
Storage and technical audits of all the EVMs would reduce the possibility of fraud but not eliminate the possibility. The only way to ensure that the election results are credible and are a true reflection of the public support is by ensuring a verifiable record of voting which allows for manual audit of every vote cast in elections. Paperless voting does not meet this standard.
The EVMs in their present form must go. Their continuation is simply untenable. I am confident that the EVMs would go pretty soon. What the Commission is doing is to save it skin should things go wrong in the present EVM regime. For the Election Commission that was willing to bet its money on its ‘perfect’, ‘tamper proof’ EVMs only weeks ago, any sign of its diminishing confidence in EVMs is a welcome change.