India's Voting Machines Are Raising Too Many Questions

(MENAFN- NewsIn) By Andy Mukherjee/Bloomberg

New Delhi, April 12: Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies and financial
services in Asia. Previously, he worked for Reuters, the Straits Times and Bloomberg News.

Now that the quid pro quo in India's opaque elector
al funding has been exposed, electronic voting
machines are the next port
of call for judicial scrutiny. And rightly so.


The national elections
have been paperless since 2004. Yet, the voting
devices remain deeply controversial. On April 16, Supreme Court judges will hear petitions demanding 100% matching of ballots recorded electronically with paper slips. Currently, these physical records are briefly shown to elector
s behind a glass screen; only a small sample gets counted.

The poll will start, in phases, on April 19. The last ballots will be cast June 1, at the peak of a brutal summer, and the results are expected June 4. The tight schedule doesn't offer much scope for deeper reforms sought by citizens' groups, such as placing a record of the vote in the hands of elector
s, who will then put them in a box. This, the Election Commission has argued, will take India back to paper voting
, with all its attendant law-and-order problems.

Still, given the slide in recent years in India's democratic credentials, it would be dangerous to brand calls for change as Luddite or reject them on grounds of technical expediency.

The stakes are high. A third term for Prime Minister
Narendra Modi, the pollsters' consensus outcome, could mean a further tilt toward his divisive politics. The majority Hindu voters are being bombarded with messages of religious polarization, with the prime minister dismissing the opposition Congress Party's manifesto in public rallies as bearing the imprint of the Muslim League, the party that played a key role in the bloody partition of the subcontinent in 1947.

There are plenty of cheerleaders - both for Modi, and for India's drift away from its secular, democratic constitution
- especially in the country's impoverished, overpopulated north, which has suddenly been filled with a newfound enmity toward minorities, particularly Muslims. But are almost 1 billion voters on-board with the idea of a Hindu nation or against it? There's only one way to find out: a fair ballot that's transparent to everyone voting
and observing.

Will 2024 be a credible election? Western democracies, having flirted with technology, have mostly decided against surrendering the act of recording a citizen's most profound political choice entirely to machines. In 2009, Germany's constitution
al court declared computer-aided voting
un constitution
al for failing to meet standards of public scrutiny. Most votes in the US presidential elections
are paper ballots marked by hand or machines. Even Estonia, considered a pioneer, still has substantial paper voting

A vote has three legs: It must be cast as intended, recorded as it is cast, and counted as it is recorded. Before machines were introduced, every Indian election brought news of“booth capture.” People with guns would simply march in and hijack the vote. Since electronic voting
machines don't accept more than four ballots in a minute, parties no longer have an incentive to hire muscle.

Yet, the election equation still looks wobbly. There is considerable skepticism about whether people's choices are being recorded fairly, and if they're being counted right. Opposition parties are protesting.“The king's soul is in the EVM,” Rahul Gandhi, the main opposition leader, said at a public rally in Mumbai last month, referring to Modi and the electronic voting

Kannan Gopinathan, an electrical and electronics engineer, was involved in the 2014 general election as a civil servant and found no reason to doubt the integrity of the vote. The setup was nothing more than a calculator. An elector
pressed a button on a ballot unit. A control unit recorded the selection. Neither part connected to any external device or network. They were joined by a simple cable.

The problem, as Gopinathan told me on a recent trip, crept in with the nationwide introduction of a third accessory in the 2019 election: voter verifiable paper audit trail. This additional unit sits between the ballot and the control units. It was introduced to assuage the voter's concern about what happens after she presses the button. Now, the candidate and the party symbol are displayed - for a few seconds, behind a tinted glass - before the light goes out, the paper gets cut, and she goes home satisfied.

Trouble is, the appendage is much more than just a dumb display. Unseen by the voter, it also tells the controller unit what choice to record, something that should be done only by the ballot unit. And since these additional devices are programmed for each constituency before elections
, they are no longer immune to potential outside influences. As computer scientist Madhav Deshpande asked in an article earlier this year:“What is the guarantee that the vote is unchanged after it is displayed?”

Gopinathan, who has since resigned from government
service, has turned into one of the country's most vocal critics of electronic voting
. He emphasizes that he has no evidence that any of the machines have ever been manipulated. What worries him is that they can be - the setup is no longer that of a rudimentary calculator. Besides, nobody wants to tackle the knottier issue. If the paper audit is supposed to supersede the machine's count, then“Where does my vote legally reside - in paper, or in bits and bytes?” he asks.

The sometimes cozy and often coercive relationship between capital and politics in the world's largest democracy has already been laid bare in all its ugliness. With the Indian Supreme Court lifting the veil from anonymous elector
al funding, quid-pro-quo deals and corporate donations to evade harassment are for all to see. The voting
machine is the next obvious candidate for scrutiny.

And that's just as well. It isn't only the contestants but the voters themselves who may be at a permanent disadvantage. A poor person who wants a state-paid hospital bed or a reasonably priced train ticket gets one op port
unity in five years to express her preference. But she gets the same chance as a tycoon who wants a lower corporate tax rate or a real-estate concession. A seemingly democratic election gives Modinomics a fig leaf of legitimacy for policies that have made India among the most unequal societies on earth.

If the credibility of elections
comes under doubt, then the fig leaf drops. In that case, the average voter must be resigned to accept whatever deal is thrown up by the confluence of strongman politics, crony capitalism and a machine that blesses both - in perpetuity.




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