India’s Election: Ghosts in the Machine?

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India’s Election: Ghosts in the Machine?

Allegations of tampering with electoral voting machines are sowing seeds of discord in Indian politics.

India’s Election: Ghosts in the Machine?

Election officials carry electronic voting machines as counting votes of India’s massive general elections begins in Ahmadabad, India, Thursday, May 23, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Ajit Solanki

Irrespective of who won or lost in the 2019 Indian general election, the single biggest loser is the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the respect it commanded in the eyes of both voters and parties.

Even as it grappled with allegations of millions of missing votes, inaccurate names in voter rolls and the overt bias of allowing the ruling party to violate the election code of conduct, the single biggest issue were reports of widespread malfunctioning and mishandling of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs).

What makes matters worse is how the ECI has chosen silence and insularity when confronted with such reports.

The 2019 election isn’t the first time that aspersions have been cast on the security of voting machines in India. Ever since their introduction in 1998, there have been murmurs about the possibility of them being “hackable.”

The line of opinion between EVM skeptics and EVM proponents had traditionally been a sharp one.

While some have stuck to saying EVMs are just not trustworthy and should simply be done away with, their opponents have branded these skeptics as at best technologically challenged and uninformed, and at worst, outright conspiracy theorists.

At any rate, no political party had taken the issue up. Commentators on both sides of the line remained on the fringe of mainstream political discourse, waging their own intellectual battles. But in 2019, for the first time, the line has blurred and political parties are coming together to raise serious concerns about EVMs. Furthermore, they’re petitioning the Supreme Court of India to look into the matter.

Alongside the ECI, which defends EVMs as infallible, those who support the use of EVMs have relied on three crucial points:

1) EVMs aren’t networked and aren’t reprogrammable and therefore not “hackable.”

2) Skeptics have failed to demonstrate a working hack of EVMs.

3) If EVMs could be manipulated, then why do ruling parties lose elections?

“If a machine can be built by humans, it can be hacked by humans as well,” says Prabir Purkayastha. Purkayastha is the founding editor or Newsclick.in, and the president of the Free Software Movement of India.

“We have to understand what hacking an EVM means,” Purkayastha continues. “If one has physical access to the machine the votes can be changed by either replacing the original controller with a compromised one or by reprogramming the existing one. And that would qualify as the machine having been hacked.”

Purkayastha is no conspiracy theorist. In fact far from it.

In a recent essay carried on his website, he lambasted a show put up by an “expert” who claimed to have full knowledge of EVM hacking, and called it a “theater of the absurd.”

The episode he was referring to was a press conference organized in London on January 21, 2019 by the Foreign Press Association and the India Journalist Association of Europe where a man by the name of Syed Shuja was to demonstrate how EVMs were hacked.

Shuja turned out to be a charlatan who showed no hack and instead treated the audience to a series of unbelievable and badly scripted cloak and dagger stories involving high profile murders and deaths. He claimed his team had stopped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from hacking the 2017 Delhi state elections and ensuring a fair win for the Aam Aadmi Party.

He then said his team was killed in a shootout, but he escaped to the United States with a bullet wound.

The show was such a disaster that the organizing bodies — the Indian National Congress (INC) which had its leader Kapil Sibal present at the show, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) which has been EVM-skeptic for a long time — immediately distanced themselves from Shuja.

The London fiasco hit the skeptic camp hard right before the 2019 elections. Bolstered by Shuja’s flop show, the ECI set in motion a plan to seek legal action against EVM skeptics creating yet another roadblock to independent examination.

What the ECI, however, refuses to acknowledge is the fact that Shuja’s failed attempt notwithstanding, their refusal to allow an open and public audit is what allows the skepticism to breed. After all, the main reason there has been no public demonstration of a working hack comes not from the machines being foolproof, but from the ECI’s refusal to organize a real hackathon allowing for an open security audit.

The ECI’s second line of defense of the EVMs was saying that the controllers in the machines were One Time Programmable (OTP) — meaning that once the program to collect and tally votes was stored in the machines, it couldn’t be changed. And this, in turn, means that once the machine’s working has been demonstrated to polling agents, the machines would remain true to their intended purpose all through the polling and counting.

But this claim seems to be falling apart under closer scrutiny by experts and scholars.

Responding to a Right to Information (RTI) petition, the ECI said India’s voting machines are manufactured by two government-owned companies: Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd. (ECIL)

The microchips in the controllers, however, were procured from NXP Semiconductors, a Dutch company.

Contrary to the ECI’s claim, as pointed out by RTI researchers, the company’s website says that the controllers can come with FLASH memory — which in lay terms means they can be reprogrammed.

Citing national security and intellectual property clauses, the ECI and the manufacturing companies refused to identify the exact kind of controller being used — in effect not denying that FLASH could have been used in some or all of the machines.

The only argument that works in favor of the ECI and the EVMs is the point that if the machines are hackable, why do ruling parties sometimes lose? Wouldn’t they always win if there were a way to ensure it?

After all, just months before the national elections, the BJP lost a series of state elections. That does speak to the neutrality or general fairness of the polls and the machines.

“I don’t think mass rigging [using the machines alone] is as yet possible,” Purkayastha says. “It is a mammoth effort. Someone somewhere [in the ECI] would have leaked such a grand plan.”

Not all political voices are convinced.

Speaking to members of his Nationalist Congress Party, veteran Indian politician and multi-time central minister Sharad Pawar hinted at a larger conspiracy saying: “The Congress winning the elections in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, raised doubts in my mind. It was a way to ensure victory in the national elections.”

While the EVMs being hacked or fixed — whether in toto or in select constituencies — is up for speculation. But where the ECI discredits itself and its handling of the EVMs is in the response (or lack thereof) it has given to skeptical voices.

For example, iVote, a citizen journalism project run by Newslaundry.com to monitor voter obstructions, noted that curiously enough, in all but one case of voters pressing one button and the vote going to a different candidate, it was always the BJP that benefited.

While this might have been a glitch in the machines, the ECI’s refusal to actively engage with such complaints from voters put it under a cloud of political bias.

“There’s way too many glitches happening with EVMs and the whole process of how they are being used and deployed to not be concerned,” Harsh Shukla, an analyst working with iVote explained. “Malfunctioning of EVMs in Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Bihar, etc. led to major delays in voting and voters had no option but to leave. Then there is the major issue with ghost votes and missing votes which is now coming to light.”

An investigation by The Quint showed serious discrepancies in the number of votes polled and the number of votes counted in 373 constituencies — which is over 68 percent of the total constituencies in India.

According to the report, constituencies like Kancheepuram, Dharmapuri, Sriperumbudur, and Mathura have more votes counted in the final tally than those that were cast. The difference is in tens of thousands of votes.

Furthermore, several tens of thousands of machines have gone missing and the ECI has no record of where they are.

According to a series of RTI applications filed by information activist Manoranjan Roy with the ECI and the machine manufacturers BEL and ECIL, in a span of about 15 years, 964,270 machines have gone missing or are unaccounted for. The ECI says every machine has a uniquely identifiable and trackable serial number.

The obvious question is where are those machines? Could they not be rigged and used to replace the ones used in voting?

The ECI, of course, has remained silent on these questions.

EVMs and their alleged tampering became such a big issue immediately after the 2019 elections that a delegation of senior leaders from all major opposition parties met and asked the ECI to tally the electronic vote counts with the paper trail provided by the machines.

The ECI didn’t budge.

Not until the parties petitioned the Supreme Court of India and the Supreme Court directed the ECI to do so did the commission relent. Even then, the ECI only tallied only 1.19 percent (20,625 out of 1,730,000) of the voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) enabled machines.

“This sampling is grossly insufficient — anything below 20 percent of randomized tallying in each constituency won’t be a true test of the accuracy of the machines,” said Anupam Saraph. Saraph, a professor of computation and technology at the Symbiosis Institute of Computer Research in Pune, has been investigating the use of EVMs and the biometric databases and their effect on elections for several years.

According to his research, EVMs are stealing elections and the entire exercise of tallying is simply creating an illusion of accuracy. 

“The term VVPAT is itself misleading,” Saraph says, “It doesn’t really give the voter a verifiable paper trail. The VVPAT is nothing more than a vote display unit.” 

“Let’s say I’m a voter and I press a button and see that the VVPAT machine gave me a wrong output,” Saraph said. “What can I do to prove that to the polling officer? He’ll ask me to prove that the machine malfunctioned. But the VVPAT machine isn’t giving me — the voter– the slip. So I have no way to prove that my vote wasn’t correctly recorded and I can be arrested for lying and creating a scene!”

Predictably, the victorious BJP has dismissed skepticism of EVMs as simply the rants of sore losers.

BJP leader G. V. L. Narasimha Rao mocked the opposition saying they were “looking for alibis” to explain their crushing defeat.

Ironically, in 2009, the same G. V. L. Narasimha Rao wrote a book titled Democracy At Risk! Can We Trust Our Electronic Voting Machines? The book, which has a foreword by BJP’s founding leader L. K. Advani and then-BJP ally N. Chandrababu Naidu, raised serious doubts about the political intent of introducing the machines and doing away with the traditional paper ballot. 

In 2010, it was another BJP leader, Subraminan Swamy, who launched a massive campaign that ultimately forced the Indian National Congress (INC), to junk machines procured between the years 2000 to 2005 and get machines that printed out a VVPAT. 

Central to Swamy’s campaign was a volume of EVM skeptic essays he co-edited with S. Kalyanaraman, an executive at the Asian Development Bank. The essays include scandalous statements like the possible use of trojans in display units to fool voters into believing they had their votes recorded correctly but instead, the votes went to a predetermined candidate.

Obviously, conducting elections at the scale India has to will leave gaps. But instead of acknowledging and proactively remedying areas of concern, ECI chief Sunil Arora has taken legitimate questions and concerns as affronts. He’s chosen a course of confrontation with voters, opposition parties and civil society — an attitude that may unravel the faith that 900 million voters put into the world’s largest democracy.