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.