EVM tampering row: Machines can't be rigged, says ex-Election Commissioner Quraishi

Vrinda Gopinath

SY Quraishi, who was Chief Election Commissioner from July 2011 to June 2012, is known to be outspoken about several issues regarding electoral reform both when he was in the Election Commission and after he retired. He has asked for public funding of political parties, putting an expenditure cap on them, financial transparency among parties, and to bring political parties under the Right to Information Act to clean up the electoral process.

In an interview with Scroll.in, Quraishi brushed off accusations by political parties, mainly the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati and Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal that Electronic Voting Machines in the just-concluded state Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab were tampered with. However, Quraishi agreed that for greater transparency regarding Electronic Voting Machines, the Narendra Modi government at the Centre must implement the suggestions made by the Supreme Court to implement paper trails, apart from speeding up other electoral reforms.

Excerpts:

What are the safeguards that the Election Commission takes to ensure no tampering takes place?
First, the EVMs [Electronic Voting Machines] are made by two public sector companies deliberately, which is good as the EC [Election Commission] can keep it under its control.

Critics would say that public sector companies are controlled by the government, and the Election Commission would not have any control over these companies.
Let me say, at least one company survives on our business! And even if they are under the government, we feel the public sector undertaking is more dependable than private ownership. Secondly, the machine has just a one-time programme, or chip, built into it, like a calculator. So, just like you cannot tamper with a calculator, it is the same with the EVM [Electronic Voting Machine].

Who oversees the technology used in Electronic Voting Machines?
There is a tech committee of experts of five IIT [Indian Institutes of Technology] professors, all voluntary, and from different IITs. One did passport security, another has done the Aadhar card. They are young, up-to-date guys who know what security is all about. They are independent, and every technology has to be cleared by them, we do not touch it till it’s done.

What happens after the technology is cleared?
When the machines are ready to be sent to the states for polls, it is not us who decides which machines will be sent to a constituency and district – it is a computer that makes a randomised selection, as a first step to non-tampering. Next, when the machines are in the field, the EC [Election Commission] has put in place elaborate procedural checks to ensure there is no misuse and lapses. The first level check is to ensure the EVMs [Electronic Voting Machines] are functioning properly, and where we invite representatives of all political parties. This is done a few months before an election. Then, soon after the final candidate selection is done, which is just 13 days before the polling date, the machine is again tested in the presence of the candidate or party agent, after which they all have to sign a certificate that the EVMs are in order.

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So the political party and candidate is involved right from the beginning, and they all comply?
Yes, they all come. We take their signature at every stage. It is also compulsory or they may disown us later. When the machines are ready for deployment to the booths, we seal them with a paper seal, which is printed in the Nasik printing press for currency, with a unique security number. The paper seal is deliberately delicate so as to detect even the slightest of tampering. After that seal is put on the machine, every candidate or his representative has to sign on the seal.

How do you ensure that Electronic Voting Machines are okay in the booths?
On polling day, we do a mock poll for an hour in every polling station where 60-100 votes are polled to see [if] the buttons are all working right and [are] not rigged in favour of any political party. It must also be noted that EVMs [Electronic Voting Machines] cannot be programmed to favour any party because the buttons on EVMs are not permanently fixed in the names of political parties but in the alphabetical order of names of candidates in the constituency. So, the BJP or Congress name can go up or down according to the candidate’s name in every constituency.

Why has Europe abandoned Electronic Voting Machines?
In Europe, in the four countries it was abandoned, the EVMs [Electronic Voting Machines] were made by the same Dutch company, and the failure of one machine led to its withdrawal from all four countries. Germany, for instance, rejected the EVMs not because there was something wrong with the technology but because its Supreme Court said voting should be a transparent process, that when you press a button, a voter must know what happens, so the court decided it is not transparent enough, and outlawed it.

Subramanian Swamy says he has proved in court that machines can be tampered with, which is why the Supreme Court has asked the Election Commission to go for paper ballots too.
If my recollection is right, Subramanian Swamy did not prove the machines could be tampered with but got a similar judgement from the court for more transparency. In response to his petition, the Supreme Court ordered the EC [Election Commission] to introduce the VV path or Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail, where a printer is attached to the EVM [Electronic Voting Machine]. So, when you press the button of your choice, the name comes up on the screen for six seconds for you to see it. Then the paper slip goes automatically into a sealed box. Any accusation of rigging can be proved if the result of the machine and slip is not the same.

The court had ordered the Election Commission to be ready with the voter verifiable paper audit trail as early as 2013. Why the delay?
We did our first dry run in five states, to test it in five climatic conditions at the time. We simulated an election but found the printer had 40% bugs, and it was sent back to the company. The problem is, unlike the EVM [Electronic Voting Machine], the printer is electro mechanical, which means it has moving parts and is more likely to go wrong. To give you an example, your calculator may not malfunction for five years, but how often has your printer jammed in the last week? That’s the difference.

Yes, we gave an undertaking to the court that VV path [verifiable paper audit trail] will be introduced in the 2019 general election, and we have already got 20,000 to 30,000 printers on the ground. But, frankly, I don’t know how the EC [Election Commission] is going to produce another two million in the next two-and-half years. Are they going to put their hands up and tell the SC [Supreme Court], ‘Sorry we could not keep the deadline?’

Do you find it amusing that political parties that lose accuse the Election Commission of malfunctioning Electronic Voting Machines?
Perhaps the EC [Election Commission] should take these accusations head on and counter the aggressive propaganda against it. Instead of making a one-line token statement, the EC should dispel any misgiving vociferously, aggressively and proactively. If I was there, I would hold a press conference and demonstrate the workings of EVMs [Electronic Voting Machines]. Why is the EC shy of doing it?

Today the BJP is on the Election Commission’s right side but its spokesperson, GVL Narasimha Rao, once wrote a book on Electronic Voting Machines with a foreword by LK Advani, called Democracy at risk! Can we trust our Electronic Voting Machines? Today Rao says he is gratified that the Election Commission has made many changes because of his book.
I think that is a tall claim to make but every party has one time or other accused the EC [Election Commission] of malfunctioning EVMs [Electronic Voting Machines] when they lose, but keep quiet when they win.

It is also dangerous that the Election Commission allows booth-wise results to be made public?
Do not blame the EC [Election Commission] for releasing the figures, it is the political parties that are the culprit. It was a mistake we made 15 years ago by asking political parties for their opinion, instead of going ahead and banning it. But now the issue is before Parliament and we can do nothing until they come to a decision. The EC had recommended the introduction of totaliser machines, which mixes up votes and prevents booth-wise results while counting. Earlier, before EVMs [Electronic Voting Machines], we used to mix ballot papers in a drum to protect voters. But only last month, when the parliamentary committee met [to discuss the issue], the BJP and Trinamool Congress rejected totalisers while Congress, BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party], AAP [Aam Aadmi Party] all voted in its favour.

What is the most important reform the Election Commission must undertake?
If you want genuine accountability and transparency in governance, then the Chief Election Commissioner must be elected by a collegium rather than [appointed by] the government of the day. Why should the government select such an important officer and force the candidate to be partisan and beholden to the government that selected him or her? Conversely, it is also not fair on the CEC [Chief Election Commissioner] who may have to act harshly on the government to prove his/her independence and fairness. Should the CEC not be selected by a collegium that enjoys the trust of its peers? It is the most important electoral reform to even begin genuine democracy.

Is it time to re-look at proportional representation because a Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party may get 20% of the votes but zero seats? Has the Election Commission discussed it?
Yes, the discussion on proportional representation has been raised many times in the EC [Election Commission], even with political parties, but their response has been rather lukewarm. Yes, in the 2014 general election, the BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party] was the third-largest party with a 20% vote share in UP [Uttar Pradesh] but got zero seats.

I personally believe that in this environment of majoritarianism, we must seriously consider proportional representation. The German model of representation is ideal for us where one half of candidates is directly elected and the other half is elected in seats in proportion to their party’s vote share. Unfortunately, in a first-past-the-post system, the winner takes all. It must end.