EC misses a golden chance to introduce Internet-based voting

Amitabh Tiwari
·5-min read

The Election Commission of India last week released guidelines for holding by-polls and general elections amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. By-polls are slated to be held for 27 seats in Madhya Pradesh and the Assembly elections are due in Bihar, as well.

The Election Commission, apart from announcing that social distancing and other measures be followed strictly, has added that it will:

  1. Restrict the number of voters per booth to 1,000

  2. Provide for postal ballots for senior citizens and COVID-19 patients

  3. Make a provision for separate voting hours for people with fever, etc.

COVID-19 has given a big boost to everything digital: from online grocery stores to ordering medicines online to online classes for students to online doctor consultations, webinars, online trading, et al.

Data from the Reserve Bank of India shows that India is now clocking around 100 million digital transactions a day with a volume of Rs 5 lakh crore, about a five-time jump from 2016. Online sales doubled for top consumer brands in India due to the pandemic. People locked up in their homes, afraid of venturing out even after Unlock 3.0, have consumed anything and everything online.

Meanwhile new coronavirus cases in India are rising by almost 75,000 daily, with net of recoveries crossing 15,000 per day. Total number of cases is now close to 34 lakh and India is expected to overtake Brazil and become the second most-affected country worldwide after the United States by the end of September at this growth rate.

Given that the peak is nowhere in sight, the political Opposition has demanded that elections be deferred in Bihar, where Assembly polls are slated to take place later this year. The coronavirus scare is likely to result in a low voter turnout.

Considering the situation, it is an opportune moment to introduce e-voting as an option. This would have not only given a boost voter turnout but also result in cost and time savings. An option of Aadhaar card verified (through an OTP) and enabled e-voting, would have been an apt decision.

Despite the Election Commission’s efforts and various awareness campaigns, the turnout in India for general elections 2019 was below 70%. Many people who have migrated to other cities for work hold voter IDs at their birthplace and are not able to vote.

In a paper titled ‘Online voting system for India based on Aadhaar ID’, by Himanshu Agarwal and G N Pandey, the authors have proposed a model of e-voting.

“The proposed model has a greater security in the sense that voter high security password is confirmed before the vote is accepted in the main database of the Election Commission of India. The additional feature of the model is that the voter can confirm if his/her vote has gone to the correct candidate/party. In this model, a person can also vote from outside of his/her allotted constituency or from his/her preferred location.’’

Over 95% Indians have an Aadhaar card and use it once a month on an average, as per a study by social impact advisory group -- Dalberg. With half a billion active users, India now has more rural Internet users than urban ones.

The low-cost data penetration, courtesy Jio, and the Digital India push by the central government have made desi Internet more diverse and inclusive.

Internet voting was first introduced in the United States in 2000. States like West Virginia and Delaware are using Internet-based voting modules. Fourteen countries till date have used some or the other form of online voting as per Anooja A, Research Scholar at Vivekananda Global University, Jaipur.

Four countries currently use Internet voting: Canada, France, Estonia and Switzerland. In India too, all six municipal corporations of Gujarat: Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Rajkot, Bhavnagar and Jamnagar offer online voting. In association with TCS, Gujarat has developed this framework. The option was available to voters in 2010 and 2015 municipal elections.

However, it has found few takers because of the complex process of registration. Only 806 people used the facility out of a total of 95.9 lakh voters in Gujarat. Political parties feel that the Election Commission needs to promote it more to gain popularity among youth.

Currently, Aadhaar-based verification model is not used in Gujarat.

In the US and other countries, a number of online voting pilot projects have been on the rise. However, security experts warn any Internet-based voting is wide open to cyber attacks.

According to them, blockchain-based mobile voting technology is innately insecure and potentially a danger to democracy through wholesale fraud or manipulation. It could also pave the way for interference by foreign governments as is alleged to have taken place in Trump elections of 2016.

In India, while certain political parties are demanding moving back to the ballot system from currently used EVMs, moving to online voting could be too much to digest.

People who oppose Internet-based voting cite data protection, privacy issues, to infrastructure issues like ghosting, authentication and phishing. According to them it is an idea we are far from prepared for.

Critics also highlight the fact that nowhere in the world, a democracy of our size has moved to online voting. India has been at the forefront of technological revolution in the world. Our United Payments Interface has won accolades from the world setting the pace for other nations.

It’s time for us to lead and showcase a world class Internet-based voting system to the world. The millennial doesn’t want to spend half an hour to an hour in a booth to cast his/her vote when it can be done within minutes from the comfort of home/office.

People who highlight security issues are full-time on apps: this compromises data privacy laws day in and day out. By this logic, even our banking transactions are not safe.

With built-in safeguards in place, we need to start implementing e-voting or i-voting (as it is called in Estonia) because that is the future.

The pandemic provided a perfect time for the Election Commision to try out online voting, but it has failed to seize the moment.