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The case for and against EVMs

  • Published at 06:38 pm January 30th, 2020
The Election Commission is planning to use EVMs at the polling centres in one-third of the country’s 300 constituencies, a move which drew huge criticism from oppositions and independent observers Syed Zakir Hossain
File photo of an electronic voting machine (EVMs) Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

With the EC set to hold the country’s first ever full EVM election, differences of opinion persist between the machines’ supporters and opponents

With Dhaka's upcoming city corporation elections being the first in the country to exclusively make use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) instead of paper ballots, the issue of their reliability has once again come into focus.

The major opposition party continues to demand a stop to using EVMs in the February 1 polls, with a BNP delegation last week submitting a letter to the Election Commission (EC) and asking it to reinstate ballot papers in place of EVMs, arguing that EVMs are vulnerable to manipulation. 

The Election Commission maintains that casting fake vote is impossible on EVMs. But its assurances have failed to placate detractors. 

Ruling party leaders, most prominently Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader, have repeatedly dismissed the concerns by accusing BNP of spreading unfounded propaganda and arguing that use of the latest technology will ensure that the polls are fair. 

But does the technology used in the EVMs ensure fair results? Dr Mohammad Mahfuzul Islam says it undoubtedly does. 

‘EVM blocks all conventional rigging methods’ 

“There is no way of influencing the system by manipulating the hardware or software,” said Dr Islam, who was part of the 19-member technical expert team the EC formed to help design and test the EVMs. 

A computer science and engineering faculty at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Islam said the current EVM system was designed to block all the ways through which vote rigging typically happens during elections in Bangladesh. 

“One way that rigging used to happen was stuffing the ballot boxes before vote casting even began. These machines are programmed to nullify any vote entered before the designated time for the start of voting. It will begin with a count of zero votes. It will not take any command from the presiding officer or anyone else,” he told Dhaka Tribune 

The EVMs are also designed to reject one person casting another’s vote and prevent any changes to the original results during the counting after voting closes — the other two ways of rigging, said Islam. 

“Without fingerprint recognition, the machine will not accept anyone’s vote,” he added. 

The counting and all processing works are done by the machine, and it is impossible, Dr Islam stressed, to intervene in this process. “So, these three main ways of vote rigging will now stop because of the EVMs.” 

He added that Bangladesh’s EVMs are the only ones of their kind in the world, that can identify voters. “All other EVMs around the world are just counting machines. They only record how many times the buttons are being pressed. So, there is no question of not meeting any international standards.” 

‘A big loophole’ 

However, BNP’s Science and Technology Affairs Secretary Reazul Islam Rezu says voter identification security does not mean anything, when presiding officers are allowed to cast votes and there is no neutral party to verify the integrity of the EVMs. 

He said that people can be intimidated away from exercising their franchise and their votes can then be cast by someone else. The provision allowing presiding officers to cast votes in case of a fingerprint matching problem is a big loophole, he pointed out. 

“Sometimes they say there is a 5% cap, other times they say it is 25%, and even in other occasions they said the cap is 2%. But there is no written guideline regarding this,” Rezu said, referring to the percentage of votes presiding officers can register as a result of voter fingerprint recognition issue. 

He also expressed serious concerns regarding the integrity of the tech used in the EVMs. 

“We have asked the Election Commission to give us the source code, so we can show that it can be manipulated. But they did not give us the code,” Rezu told Dhaka Tribune. 

He reiterated, reflecting his party’s position, that the commission cannot be trusted to hold a fair election and by extension the EVMs are equally untrustworthy under its authority. 

“The people who made the machines know the source code. How can anyone be sure that the machines they are deploying are not pre-engineered to cheat?” he said. 

According to Rezu, if the commission introduces a third party that is acceptable to all political parties and will verify the integrity of the EVMs, then the system will begin to become acceptable. 

‘Can’t challenge results without paper audit trail’ 

Rezu also raised the concern of not being able to challenge election results using paper records, as the commission’s technical expert committee rejected a proposal of incorporating a paper audit trail into the EVM system. 

“If they kept the paper audit trail, then we could at least challenge the results based on that, and ask for a matching of records. But they are not allowing that. There is no way to meaningfully challenge the results without that,” said Rezu. 

If incorporated, a voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) or verifiable paper record (VPR) will enable EVMs to print out a paper document for every ballot cast, showing which candidate got the vote, eventually allowing the officials and party agents to compare both electronic and paper records later. 

This will help discover any discrepancies between an EVM’s final count and the manual counting from the printed out ballots, essentially deterring the dreaded “pre-engineering” through which EVMs might produce pre-determined results. 

Most recently, civil society platform Shusashoner Jonno Nagorik (Shujan), which also advocates electoral rights, stated that people have no faith in EVMs which, it said, is susceptible to manipulation by polling officials. 

‘Paper audit trail unnecessary’ 

Dr Mahfuzul Islam suggests that paper trail audit is not needed under the current EVM system 

Prof Jamilur Reza Choudhury, who led the commission’s 19-member expert team, had proposed incorporating the paper audit trail. But his proposal was dismissed on the ground of “impracticality,” said Islam. 

According to him: “A voter’s ballot is supposed to remain hidden from others. But if you vote on an EVM and it prints out your vote, then it becomes public knowledge. Also, EVM runs on battery and the printing will drain it. For these reasons, the paper trail system was not incorporated and we explained this to sir [Prof Jamilur] that it’s not possible.” 

Prof Jamilur did not respond to a request for comment. 

Dr Islam further stressed that fair voting with EVMs is ensured even without the paper audit trail. “The machines are not re-programmable. You cannot rig the vote on these EVMs. That’s why the paper trail is an unnecessary debate.”

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