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As SC Reserves Verdict on VVPAT Counting, Concern on ‘End-to-End Verifiability’ Lingers

End-to-end verifiability involves voters being able to verify whether the paper trail generated by EVMs actually has the names of the candidates they select. Some say this can be achieved in India without disturbing the existing setup.
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty.

New Delhi: As the Supreme Court reserved its judgement on Thursday (April 18) on a batch of pleas seeking complete cross-verification of votes cast using EVMs, experts have questioned some of the arguments put forward in court, pointing out that several pertinent suggestion were overlooked and facetious issues discussed instead.

The crux of the argument is end-to-end verifiability, by which the voter can verify whether the VVPAT slip has the name of the candidate of her choice and put the slip in a box.

End-to-end verifiability is a suggestion given by a body of experts from across the globe in a report prepared by the Citizens’ Commission on Elections (CCE). The CCE is an intervenor in the SC case and was initially represented by Kapil Sibal.

A bench of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta wanted to know whether the voter could be given the slip to put in a box, an action that would ensure that the voter has verified their vote.

The Election Commission of India (ECI), however, told the court that the secrecy of the vote would be lost if the slip was to be given in the hands of the voter to put in the box.

The ECI also said, “One doesn’t know what the voter would do with the slip after taking it. There could also be deliberate mischief.”

CCE convenor and retired IAS officer M.G. Devasahayam, who is one of the intervenors in the case, told The Wire this was a facetious argument.

“Why would a voter who has come to cast his vote actually put the slip in his pocket and walk off, and how can the secrecy be violated? Take the recent case of Chandigarh. It was a government official doing the mischief, not the voter,” he said.

Lawyer Aljo Joseph says end-to-end verifiability is possible without disturbing the existing setup.

He said: “The VVPAT machine has a box with a little door through which the slips are extracted. After the mock poll, the box is emptied out and the empty chamber is shown to the election agents by opening the door of the box. The voter can easily pick up his slip from this open door and deposit it in a separate box.

“No change to the technology is required to be made.”

Ex-IAS officer Kannan Gopinathan, one of the foremost voices demanding transparency in the system, said, “The VVPAT slip by its very definition is supposed to be voter-verifiable. But the slip is only seen by the voter, not verified. It is not necessary that what the voter sees has been cast and what is counted has been seen by the voter.

“The entire process of end-to-end verifiability will be lost if the slip is not given in the hands of the voter.”

The Conduct of Election Rules says the paper slip gets primacy over electronic vote if there is a discrepancy. “This means the ECI is admitting there can be a discrepancy,” he adds.

If one were to draw a parallel with another major democracy, the United States, 23% of voters there cast their vote electronically in the 2022 midterm elections using devices that generated a paper record, which in turn could be scanned by an optical reader. Another 70% used paper ballots.

Significantly, while arguing against counting 100% of VVPAT slips, the ECI admitted that the thermal paper used for printing was thin, sticky and “not meant for counting”.

In response to an RTI query, the ECI had admitted that the VVPAT slips of the 2019 general elections were disposed of within four months of polling instead of the mandatory one year.

Another request put forward by the petitioners was to reverse the ECI’s 2017 decision to replace the transparent glass on VVPAT machines with opaque glass through which voters can see the slip only when a light inside is turned on for seven seconds.

The ECI said the glass has always been tinted ever since the machines were deployed.

Also read: Why Election Commission’s FAQs on EVM-VVPATs Don’t Clear Cloud of Suspicion Over Electoral Process

Experts at the CCE too, while preparing their report, had dismissed any argument that the colour of the glass can influence results as ‘ludicrous’.

A significant issue, of the software used in the electronic devices and the audit of the source code, was something the court did not go into.

Neither did it go into the fact that the ECI has very little control over the software or even the voting machines, which are manufactured by two government entities that also design and upload the software onto them.

The software of the machines is written by handpicked software engineers at Bharat Electronics Limited and the source code is stored as a “golden copy” under lock and key.

The source code is a set of human-readable instructions that tells the machine what to do. If altered, the source code can change the outcome of an election.

The source code has never been shared with the Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) mandated to audit the software or the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology’s Standardisation Testing and Quality Certification cell that cross-verifies the TEC’s audit.

It has definitely also never been shared with the ECI – the body tasked with conducting elections.

While the ECI was at pains to explain the security measures put in place for these machines, important suggestions involving small administrative changes were not put forward.

For instance, Gopinathan says, “A simple tweak of the randomisation process will go a long way. There is a two-step randomisation of the machines that the ECI follows.

“The first randomisation is when the EVMs are allotted to assembly constituencies in the district. The second randomisation is when the machines are further allotted booth wise.

Also read: Are India’s Elections Free and Fair?

“The machines – that is, the ballot unit, the control unit and the VVPAT – are first paired and allotted to the booths and then commissioned, i.e, the symbol, candidate and party name is loaded onto the machine.

“This step can be tweaked. The allotment of the [ballot unit], [control unit] and the VVPAT to the booths should be done after the candidate data is loaded to the VVPAT and not before. Because the candidate sequence in the constituency will be the same, so it does not matter which EVM is allotted to which booth.”

The fear is that if the candidate data is loaded at the very end – after the EVMs have been allotted to their booths – there is a possibility that the machines’ software could be manipulated based on the demographic profile of the area in question.

When the data is loaded before the EVMs are allotted, election staff will have no knowledge of which booths the machines will ultimately end up in.

Polling for the first phase of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls is on Friday (April 19). The hearing in the Supreme Court on Thursday is at best being seen as an academic exercise as any judgement it passes will affect future elections only.

Senior advocate Maninder Singh, appearing for the ECI, explained the process of how an EVM functions.

Advocate Prashant Bhushan and senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan appeared for the petitioners.

On April 16, the top court had deprecated criticism of EVMs and calls for reverting to ballot papers, saying the electoral process in India is a “humongous task” and attempts should not be made to “bring down the system”.

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