When the solution became the problem: The controversy over failing VVPATs

28 August 2018
Since their first use in 2013, for the Noksen assembly seat in Nagaland, the VVPAT slips have been tallied over 500 times. In each case, the EVM votes have matched the VVPAT slips.

The controversy over electronic voting machines keeps being resurrected with predictable regularity. The latest hue and cry arose in May this year, after reports emerged of large-scale malfunctioning of the voter-verifiable paper audit trail machines during by-elections to four Lok Sabha and ten state assembly seats. The malfunctioning was so widespread that the Election Commission ordered re-polls in 73 booths of the Kairana parliamentary constituency in Uttar Pradesh, 49 booths in the Maharashtra seat of Bhandara-Gondiya and one booth in the Nagaland Lok Sabha seat.

As many as 17 political parties came together this August to protest the continued use of EVMs, and plan to meet the EC soon to demand a reversion to using ballot papers. In a recent articlepublished by the fortnightly magazine India Legal, I suggested that the controversy having become so widespread, the EC itself should call a meeting of political parties to allay their fears, so that the people’s faith in the system is not shaken. In an all-party meeting called by Election Commission on 27 August, this matter was the hot topic. Many suggestions were put forth about the number of VVPAT machines to be counted—ranging from 5 to 30 percent.

The chief election commissioner blamed the malfunction of the VVPAT machines on excessively hot weather and exposure of sensors to light. This is rather worrying, because when the trials for VVPATs were conducted in 2011 and 2012, they were subjected to extreme weather conditions. From coastal conditions in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, to excessive heat in Jaisalmer, extreme cold in Leh and extreme rains in Cherrapunji, the machines were subjected to gruelling tests in a full election simulation during the hot and humid month of July. The first trial, in July 2011, revealed a large number of glitches, and the EC asked the manufacturers to fix them. After the rectifications were made, the machines were tested again in the same locations a year later. In such circumstances, the explanation that the machines were affected by hot and humid conditions comes as a surprise.

The second reason provided by the CEC—the inexperience of the staff, who were handling these machines for the first time—seems more plausible. He assured the people that more intensive training would be conducted in the future.

It is important to mention that it was precisely to remove the last remnants of doubts regarding EVMs that VVPAT machines were introduced, after an all-party meeting in 2010. VVPATs provide voters a means to verify that their vote was cast correctly and to facilitate audit of stored electronic results. Voters can review a physical ballot to confirm their electronic vote.

It was these VVPAT machines, not the EVMs, that malfunctioned in the by-polls. Who had imagined that the solution itself would become a problem some day? While it is true that the EC officials should have replaced the machines within the timeframe of half an hour, as stipulated in its rules, this is hardly cause to question the reliability of EVMs. Since their first use in 2013, for the Noksen assembly seat in Nagaland, the VVPAT slips have been tallied over 500 times. In each case, the EVM votes have matched the VVPAT slips.

I have heard many political leaders raise the example of Germany, where a constitutional court declared the use of EVMs illegal in 2009. They miss the point that the court had passed the order not because they found any fault with the technology, but because the German constitution lays down the principle that all essential steps in the electoral process should be subject to public examination. The VVPATs were introduced in India to meet this very requirement—the ability of voters to verify their votes without expert help.

In fact, in 2013, the Supreme Court of India appreciated the EC’s initiative to introduce VVPATs and directed the government to provide adequate funds for the same. However, the government delayed sanctioning the funds for over three years, which has almost jeopardisedthe production of the required number of VVPAT machines to fulfil the EC’s commitment last year in an affidavit to the Supreme Court that it would provide the machines at every polling station during the 2019 general election.

The recent malfunctioning of VVPATs, though unfortunate, should not shake the faith of people in the Election Commission and the Indian democracy. Re-polls were successfully conducted in the affected areas.

A recent performance review undertaken by the EC showedthat approximately 11 percent of VVPAT machines failed during the May by-elections. This is higher than the malfunction rate for EVMs, which stands at around 5 percent. This has an easy technical explanation: EVMs are solid-state machines while the VVPATs are electromechanical devices and hence more vulnerable to malfunction. For instance, to use an analogy to better understand the distinction, a calculator, which is a solid-state machine, would work for years, whereas a computer printer, which is an electromechanical device, routinely faces problems. This does not call for an uproar over its credibility. This just means more machines need to be kept in reserve, so that speedy replacement can be undertaken.

The EC has taken a number of corrective measures. The design improvements are already being incorporatedin the new machines that it should receive by the end of November for next year’s election. The new VVPATs are to have sensors with hoods over them to protect them from direct exposure to light. Humidity resistant paper will be obtained for use in humid areas. The decision was made by the Electronics Corporation of India, one of the two state-owned companies that manufacture VVPATs. According to Chief Election Commissioner OP Rawat, these are “simple changes” yet “ingenious measures.”

The EC has requisitioned an additional1.3 lakh VVPAT machines, bringing its total order to 17.4 lakh units and raising its reserves to 35 percent. This welcome move will help it fulfil its target of replacing a faulty machine within half an hour, so that a technical glitch does not result in voters having to wait in queue for hours. The EC has also decided to reduce the number of voters in each polling booth from 1,600 to 1,400 in urban areas and from 1,400 to 1,200 in rural areas, to accommodate the extra time taken by the VVPAT process. However, with delivery on the existing order already having been pushed from September to November, it remains to be seen whether the extra order will lead to further delays.

In a significant departure from his party’s stand on reverting to ballot papers, Congress leader Kamal Nath filed a plea in the Supreme Court, on 10 August, seeking directions to the Election Commission to check at least 10 percent of the VVPAT slips in the upcoming assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh. Starting with the assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh last year, the EC has conducted pilot testing of VVPAT returns in one polling station per assembly constituency. Nath also requested that the display time of VVPATs be increased from seven to 15 seconds, so that the voter can confirm their vote conveniently.

These are both constructive suggestions. I would propose a 5-percent random check of VVPAT slips. In addition, the top two candidates should be allowed to pick up any two VVPATs each that they would like counted, much like the two referrals each team is allowed in cricket. As for the other demand, the display time may be increased to 12 seconds, following which the EVM freezes after every vote is cast to prevent booth capturing. This would mean that the process would not take any extra time. It is not only a reasonable suggestion, but a small concession that could persuade the opposition drop its unreasonable demand to revert to ballot papers.

The EC’s role in ensuring the people’s faith in democracy is paramount. I believe it could be more proactive in communicating the reliability of the EVMs, especially in conjunction with VVPATs. It must promptly put to rest any doubts regarding the credibility of the machines, instead of allowing rumours to fester before coming out with a statement. My feeling is that it is easier to remove all doubts from the minds of political parties, but extremely difficult to dispel these from the minds of the public. The loss of public faith in democracy and its protector institutions spells nothing but disaster.

On my part, I have no doubt that EVMs have made India the proud global leader in the field of elections. After the introduction of VVPATs, our system is now foolproof—a gold standard, as Hillary Clinton once remarked.

SY Quraishi is the former chief election commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder – The Great Indian Election. He is currently a Distinguished Fellow at Trivedi Political Data Centre, Ashoka University.

Keywords: election EVM VVPAT Election Commission