Who will elect India’s leaders – we or Xi? The answer lies in EVMs

Published in ThePrint on July 31, 2020

The soul of a democracy is in our vote. Every Indian over 18 years of age can vote. So far, we have believed that what we vote is what is counted. Election after election, we have voted in large numbers with this implicit comfort. Yes, there were stray incidents through the decades of ballot box stuffing and rumours of EVM rigging. But none have been serious enough to cause us to question the election process.

But now, for the first time, India faces a serious and looming threat from outside its borders in the form of Xi Jinping’s China. Wars of tomorrow will not just be fought in mountainous terrain but also in the digital domain – we are moving from kinetic to algorithmic warfare. We have seen past alleged attempts by Russia, to state just one example, to maliciously intervene in the 2016 US Presidential election campaigns to influence voting behaviour. Such intentions now come armed with never-before capabilities. The manipulation of the actual voting process is but a half-step away.

From ballot to EVMs

For a long time, India’s electoral process relied on the paper ballot. There were three problems with the use of paper. First, ballots could be stuffed by rogue elements. Second, the process of counting the paper votes took long. And third, it was expensive – printing and transporting ballot boxes cost money.

That is when India introduced Electronic Voting Machines, or EVMs about 20 years ago. All one had to do was to press a button to cast one’s vote. No more ballot stuffing. Results came in hours rather than days. EVMs could be moved easily. Since they were reusable, the costs across elections were also reduced.

EVMs vulnerable too

Time, however, does not stand still. The same EVMs that once provided the assurance of free and fair elections in India, are now the biggest vulnerability in the face of an external aggression. While the EVMs are manufactured in India, the device is a black box. No one knows what hardware and software lies inside – other than the Election Commission and the government-controlled manufacturers (Bharat Electronics Ltd and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd). The chips and the code are an opening for a cyber superpower like China to exploit. In fact, with the introduction of VVPATs, or voter-verified paper audit trail, there is now an added vulnerability because there is a manual transfer of data, along with information about and images of contesting candidates, from a laptop to every EVM prior to an election.

It is urgent for us citizens to worry about the machines that are central to our democracy. Not all chips are made in India. Not all code is tamper-proof. No longer can other countries be trusted to stay away from our elections, given the rising stakes in international relations. For the first time in generations, all Indians ought to be concerned about their vote and ask, “Am I certain only the vote I cast will be the one that will be counted?”

How do we ensure that we – and not Xi – will decide our next chief ministers and prime ministers?

Open EVMs for inspection

One solution was for the Election Commission to make the EVM hardware and software open to everyone who wanted to inspect it. This should have been done earlier. Simply organising EVM hackathons is no answer. When we are not sure whether our phones, apps or mobile towers broadcast sensitive information to listening posts beyond our borders, how can we be certain that EVMs will not do this? When ultra-high security nuclear plants can be infected with malware to render them dysfunctional, won’t manipulating the EVM data transfer process just before polling be child’s play? Algorithmic warfare is today a monster at the cutting edge of technology. The EVM is no longer the solution – it is now the problem.

These questions were just whispers earlier. But in the light of the heightened threat India faces from a cyber superpower like China, we need to rethink every assumption about the robustness of the electoral process. We need to learn from advanced countries – are most of them dumb not to use machines in their voting process?

Go back to paper, and record

The solution lies in two parts. The first part is a shift back to paper and away from the machine. The time taken to count the ballot is no longer a concern – Indian elections now anyway stretch for nearly 50 days. An additional three days will hardly make a difference. The additional cost is also not an issue – India can afford it. No price is too high to ensure absolute integrity and confidence in our elections.

The other issue with paper-based voting was that of ballot stuffing. Politically backed miscreants could enter the booth and stuff paper ballots to favour a specific candidate or party. This is where we bring in the second part of the solution – webcams in every booth that can live stream on the internet. A billion pairs of eyes can watch over a million booths for the ten hours of the voting process. Internet connectivity has ensured that almost every nook and corner of populated India has coverage. In the odd booth where wireless does not reach, the webcams can store and timestamp for later viewing.

This combination of paper ballots with streaming webcams in every booth is the only solution that can guarantee a clean election — free from interference of foreign powers. This is in the interest of every Indian political party — those in power and those in Opposition. No Indian political party would want an enemy of the nation to influence the election process. All of them need to unite to persuade the Election Commission. Indeed, the EC should read the writing on the wall. Every Indian citizen needs to be reassured that the democracy that we so treasure, and our vote that is so precious, is not being handed over to Xi.