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Thursday, Sep 30, 2004

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Electronic voting

AMERICAN Presidential Elections are drawing near; campaigning has been feverish, dirty, vicious and savage and the ordinary American is taking all this in his stride. Yet, for such a vastly technologically powerful country spearheading innovations and development worldwide, one process that seems to elude its people is the electronic ballot machine.

Controversy is raging whether the machines and the systems, including software designed and developed by a private company, is safe and tamper proof. Ironically, a vastly illiterate country with no widespread infrastructure of technology, with no tradition of innovations such as the US, India is conducting its elections apparently successfully with the EVM (electronic voting machine).

Two reasons why the EVMs have been successful in India, according to some, are: One, that they are made in the public sector and, two, they are designed with the illiterate user in mind. Yet another reason for success may lie in its simplicity requiring auxiliary manual operations at the polling booth itself, for instance, identifying the voter, a control unit and a voting unit and manual entries for tallying the number of people who entered the booth and the votes polled. Here, the `secrecy' of the balloting process may not be so sacrosanct and, therefore, there are no serious issues of encryption.

However, according to modified Murphy's Law, in the World Wide Web, if a site can be created, it can be hacked. Similarly, an electronic chip installed in any device can be tampered with from a remote device. It took sometime for Abdul Kareem Telgi to figure out how to exploit advances in printing technology and establishing marketing channels to make and distribute fake stamp papers. It may not take that long in the field of electronics. However, as yet, the cost-benefit equation may not favour such an antisocial experiment. Moreover, political parties and candidates have well-tested devices to beat the systems or to exploit the loopholes in the present balloting process to their advantage.

Practices such as tampering with the electoral rolls, gerrymandering and scientific rigging, impersonating and even preventing physically an entire group opposed to the dominant party or caste from voting, conjures visions of macho contestants who are admired even by voters.

Against that, tampering with EVMs will look obviously cowardly. Since it is largely a manual process, even if it is less heroic, the poll officials too can connive with their favourite party or candidate to bring about the desired outcome. Independent people with no party affiliation, particularly in large cities, often find getting voters ID cards or ensuring that their names are in the rolls, beyond their ability and not worth the effort. However, before long, for its own good, the Election Commission would be well-advised to get the EVMs tested comprehensively and in a transparent manner.

R. Sundaram

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