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Saturday, May 1, 2021

TN Assembly elections - EVMs - fear of hacking !

As Tamil Nadu awaits the counting and the results of Assembly Election held on 6th Apr 2021, the social media is rife with memes on ‘EVM hacking’ – on containers, bosch machines and dish antennas !!.  Some grassroot workers have been deputed and have been selflessly keeping watch at centres where EVM are kept.  .. .. .. it is sad, that a fortnight ago, lakhs conglomerated in poll meeting of leaders – no restrictions were imposed but now the nos. are so high and even a full-time lockdown appears to be a welcome measure.



Back to 1980 – in Kerala,  the Left Democratic Front (LDF) formed a government led by E. K. Nayanar. By 20 October 1981, LDF lost their majority in the Assembly when the Congress (A), the Kerala Congress (M) and the Janatha (Gopalan) withdrew support for the government to join the UDF.  Nayanar recommended to the Governor to dissolve the assembly and impose President's rule   which led to a mid-term election in 1982.

Middle aged persons living in Tamil Nadu will recall ‘Rupavahini’ – the broadcasting network of Srilanka.  At that time it was the largest television  broadcasting its channels in both VHF and UHF frequencies.  In Chennai, in summer, one could see Rupavahini TV (some Tamil and some Cricket too) – it was common sight – people having a taller antenna than normal, climbing to their rooftops and kept changing its directions, while someone watching TV would shout whether they were receiving any signal !!

.. .. .. years later living in a room in a remote place – a portable TV with internal antenna – the hack for getting improved quality was ‘a metal coat hanger’ – yes the one primarily intended to hang clothes !  - it really worked !!

Now it is again all about dish antennas !! .. .. and every other machines and people’s professed knowledge on EVM and hacking them. While some fear that EVMs can be so programmed to ensure that every pressing of the machine turn golden vote for one party, some go a step further professing that they can be hacked – even without contact, changing the vote in favour of a National party!.

Electronic Voting has come a long way since the usage of long ballot papers, casting votes on them and folding them to insert inside ballot boxes.   The use of EVMs and electronic voting was developed and tested by the state-owned Electronics Corporation of India and Bharat Electronics in the 1990s. They were introduced in Indian elections between 1998 and 2001, in a phased manner. The electronic voting machines have been used in all general and state assembly elections of India since 2014.

Prior to the introduction of electronic voting, India used paper ballots and manual counting. Those now trying to  criticize EVM do know very well – that in those days of paper ballots – booth capturing, fraudulent voting, mass voting were all prevalent.  There have been instances when polling booths would turn inaccessible in late evening – and the votes remaining would be cast in favour of the top 2 parties – sort of ‘vote sharing’.  To the na├»ve Q of what is the purpose is casting say 150 vote each of the 300 remaining – brilliant answer was it would ensure that the electoral race is always between the perceived & powerful 1 & 2 – the fringe parties would automatically get relegated in the race.  Loyalists (goondas !) would simply walk in, snatch the ballot paper from polling officer, punch them and put them in the boxes -  ‘one man – many a votes’ – which is absolutely not possible in EVMs.    Embedded EVM features such as "electronically limiting the rate of casting votes to five per minute",  a security "lock-close" feature, an electronic database of "voting signatures and thumb impressions" to confirm the identity of the voter, conducting elections in phases over several weeks while deploying extensive security personnel at each booth have helped reduce electoral fraud and abuse, eliminate booth capturing and create more competitive and fairer elections.

Indian EVMs are stand-alone machines built with once write, read-only memory. The EVMs are produced with secure manufacturing practices, and by design, are self-contained, battery-powered and lack any networking capability. They do not have any wireless or wired internet components and interface – that way paper balloting was more susceptible to electoral malpractices.  In the hue and cry and the debate around claims of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) hacking, the voices of technical experts remain silent and what dominates is the shallow opinion of some self-proclaimed experts, politicians and political experts.  

Unlike what is being portrayed, any electronic device can be hacked: wired and wireless. In order to hack a machine, the best way is to establish a wired link with its control unit, which is the brain of the device. In technical terms, it is called the microprocessor, which is an electronic board with some circuit elements that can do basic mathematical operations based on the given input.  Hacking a device through a wired connection essentially means designing another electronic device, which is able to send a specific pattern of information that its brain can read and interpret.  Wireless hacking would be even more difficult – would require the recipient device having a link, radio receiver so that the electronic circuit could be read from outside. 

·         The Supreme Court junked a plea by a Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader seeking 100 per cent matching of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) slips with the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) vote count. “We are not going to interfere in the middle of the election process,” a bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde said, dismissing the plea by Gopal Seth. The petitioner contended that 100 percent matching was necessary to ensure transparency in the polling process.

·         In another unrelated instance that smacks comedy – five dish antennas fitted on buildings at the Kunthavai Naacchiyar Government Arts College for Women in Thanjavur, were received upon a complaint to EC made by DMK. (https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Tiruchirapalli/dish-antennas-at-a-counting-centre-in-thanjavur-removed/article34360929.ece)



EVMs were first used in our Country almost 40 years ago in Parur assembly elections in Kerala, which was meant to be an experiment.   Congress candidate at the time, A.C. Jose, moved the Supreme Court to challenge the use of EVMs after he lost the election to Sivan Pillai of the Communist Party of India. In his petition, Jose argued that there was no specific law prescribing the use of EVMs — a contention the court upheld. Saying that EVMs could not be used in elections unless a legal provision to this effect was introduced.  Parliament consequently amended the Representation of the People Act 1951 in December 1988 to introduce a provision, Section 61A, that empowered the Election Commission to use EVMs.

Eminent Tamil writer Srirangam  Rangarajan (more famously Sujatha) headed the team of Engineers from BEL that made those EVMs.   

Interesting !

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
20.4.2021. 

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