Explainer: Why Electronic Voting Machine Is Not Enough To Ensure Transparent Elections
Electronic Voting Mechanisms serve as an important marker of transparency in electoral process which is a tool for swifter electronic result tabulation and consolidation, provided all conditions for the machine to function are in place. Over the years, EVM has undergone technical evolution from being part manual operated to fully automated and electronic.
There are many types of EVMs being used among which most common are the type used in India that allows voter to press once as per his/her choice; and Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machine, under use in USA, which has touch screen that displays choices to the voter — who select choices, and can change their mind as often as needed before casting the vote.
Voting machines – EVM to DRE — differ in usability, security, cost, speed, accuracy, and above all perception and trust of the public in its impartial functioning. The choice of EVM is a balance between
(i) Enterprise tech – availability, reliability, scalability; and
(ii) Consumer tech – easier to use even for voters with disabilities, mass tested; maintenance, etc.
Each type of EVM has had and continues to have technical issues of software programming, as it evolves, but most importantly it is not oblivious to fraud.
Globally, 31 countries use or have used EVMs for elections. Only 4 countries are using EVMs nationwide i.e. India, Brazil, Bhutan and Venezuela. 11 countries are partially using it; and in 5 countries its under pilot. 11 countries post piloting decided against electronic voting, that includes Bangladesh on the grounds that ‘the nation is not ready for it’. The countries that banned EVM and their reasons are:
- Germany: Constitutional Court banned the usage of EVM in elections.
- The Netherlands – Dutch Council banned them because they lacked the transparency.
- Ireland – Banned due to transparency issues.
- England – No Ban, however they chose conventional methods of elections over modern.
- France – No Ban, they chose internet voting method over EVMs
- USA – EVM without paper trail were banned & DRE is being used.
India is largest democracy in the region, 1.36 billion, that is using EVM nationwide for approximately 911m registered voters. It was a gradual introduction that started in 1980 and was rolled out nationwide in 2009. The core reason to move from paper ballot to EVM was to overcome delay in result i.e. tabulation, consolidation to announcement.
The statement of former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of India, S. Y. Quraishi, in his book ‘an undocumented wonder’, on the Indian electoral exercise has critical value for any decision that needs to be taken for a country like Pakistan. He writes that the “success of the system has depended on three factors: (i) faith in the technical prowess of the polling agents appointed by the candidates; (ii) the neutrality of the Election Commission; and (iii) the absence of any real or presumed ethereal beings interested in ‘guiding’ the process in order to achieve ‘positive’ results for a favored part. Take away belief in any of the three elements that underpin the Indian electoral exercise, and the whole system would collapse. This stands true in the case of Pakistan as ell where introduction of EVM has started on a note of distrust by the stakeholders..
Advantages of EVM
The core advantage of EVM is expediency of time on the Election Day in voting to result tabulation process. It expedites result counting in 2-3 hours as compare to paper ballot counting that at times have taken over 10 hours; and result consolidation over 24 hours.
It leads to reduction in vote wastage i.e. invalid and/or rejected vote that has been bone of political contention especially where number of invalid votes is more than the winning margin between the candidates. It is facilitative for illiterate voters as buttons with symbols require a pushing of button, instead of proper stamping at appropriate box, drying of ink and even folding a ballot paper. Some machines have audio and visual indications in balloting units, i.e. glow button & beep, that assure the voter that his/her vote has been recorded.
It saves cost of printing and wasting of ballot paper that are not unused. It reduces the ancillary electoral supplies expenditures like ballot box, indelible ink, inkpad, stamp, stationery, tamper proof bags, seal, election material bags, etc. However, it needs to be carefully weighed against the cost of procurement and/or development of EVM as complete unit.
The Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) is being recognized as indicator of reliability in EVM along with additional function of biometric voter verification. The introduction of VVPAT on the other hand still keeps paper based verification intact that contradicts EVM’s trait to be paperless. The paper being stuck or not cutting on the mark are known issues.
However, the most important component remains to be acceptance of EVM by key stakeholders in which the ECP is at top because of having constitutional mandate to conduct election. Political parties are equally important because usage of EVM is a part of electoral reform. On overall basis it’s the perception and credibility of machine and institution together that will create trust of key stakeholders and general public.
What is EVM?
An EVM has 3 core components i.e. Control unit, Balloting unit and VVPAT unit. All three of them have battery packs and are interconnected through cable. The EVM requires uninterrupted supply of electricity and back-up battery/ UPS. While in use, the cable needs to be connected with balloting unit at all the time. EVMs requires electricity and a minimum of 6-volt alkaline battery to function. EVM needs electricity but each unit also has batteries to keep them functional. Each EVM has a dedicated serial number for identification. Its capacity to cater maximum number of candidates differs. The most commonly used can accommodate up-to 16 candidates. In case of additional contestants more balloting units can be attached through connecting cables which is called chaining or bussing.
Control Unit: It is the main unit that is set-up in presence of the polling agents, from all contesting candidates, them to view the seal on close button. In some countries, like India the PrO undertakes mock exercise to demonstrate that (i) machine is working; and (ii) there are no pre-added votes; After which s/he (c) clears the machine; (d) and then seals the close button. Instead of issuing a ballot paper, the PrO has to press the Ballot Button at Control Unit to enable the Balloting unit for the voter to cast his/her vote. PrO prepares and initialises the machine for each voter.
The preceding steps that establish identification of the eligibility of registered voter remain the same. In some EVMs a biometric identification unit is attached to control unit to identify voter. Functionally, some machines have a display light buttons indicating
(ii) busy (when voter is authorized to use balloting unit);
(iii) display section that indicates the number of votes casted, battery life and any other actions programmed for the EVM.
It also has close, result and clear buttons that are kept sealed and used at the end of polling time. At the end of poll time the PrO by pressing the close button brings voting process to an end and balloting unit will not accept any more votes. Usually cable from balloting unit is also disconnected after this. It also has total button to enable PrO to view the status of votes casted and for polling agents to keep tally of the voting process.
Balloting Unit: The unit is placed behind a privacy screen and is linked by cable with control unit. The candidate’s name and symbols are printed, as a list, and placed under a plastic screen for voters; so that s/he can cast his/her vote by pressing button on the balloting unit against his/her choice. One can press button as in most EVMs post pressing of the ballot button the vote is recorded and the machine locks. In some machines, there is option of a tiny red light glowing against the name of selected candidate and the machine emits a sound as well. The vote is recorded in the memory of the machine.
VVPAT: It is part of transparency function of EVM. It is a printer unit that is attached and placed with the balloting unit. When a vote is casted, the VVPAT generates a paper slip containing the serial number, name and symbol of the candidate for whom the vote was casted. The paper slip remains visible to the voter through a glass compartment. After about five seconds, paper slip cuts automatically and drops into the box. These slips are used to verify vote as part of electoral audit process. Additionally, a biometric verification unit can also be used to confirm the eligibility of a registered voter by linking to control unit.
The selection of an EVM to be commissioned is dependent on many technological factors in which most important are (i) Life cycle of technology to be deployed in election e.g. 1 to 2 or 3 electoral cycle; (ii) Usability; (iii) availability of technical back stopping i.e. maintenance to software upgradation and/or reconfiguration requirements; (iv) institutional and technical capacity of the Election Management Body; (v) readiness of the political parties; and (vi) general capacity of the voter.
Deployment of EVM: Administrative and Operational challenges
- Transparency is a subjective trait of the EVM wherever it has been used. Transparency requires clarity in understanding sans technological complexities for any mechanism. In countries like Pakistan, where electoral and political processes are marred by conspiracy theories and has credible history of being influenced to hijacked an opaque machine may not be the only clue to solve the puzzle of electoral transparency. It is pertinent to mention here opinion of the Constitutional Court of Germany. In 2009, it ruled that elections held in last 10 years on EVM are unconstitutional. The Courts’ judgement has stark resonance with the case of Pakistan which opined that ‘EVM technology invites a high risk of software programming errors or deliberate electoral fraud committed by manipulating the software, which cannot be easily recognized. In the court’s opinion, the electors should be able to verify how their vote is recorded without having detailed computer knowledge. It is not enough for results to be tallied solely based on the processing of data stored in a machine’s electronic memory.’
- Stakeholders’ Trust is critical to any electoral reform and/or introduction of any technological advancement for the ease of the electoral process. This is cardinal to any transparency trait. Introduction of EVM via an ordinance and bull doze through the National Assembly without any parliamentary debate does not facilitate the trust indicator for political stakeholders or public. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is constitutionally mandated for the conduct of elections that has also been sidelined and is contesting the constitutional and operational breech of purview. In such situation introduction of EVM will not contribute to trust rather will add to the distrust. When both key stakeholders refuse to pose trust in EVM, the voter and public at large cannot be accepted to do otherwise. The ECP has to ensure public meetings (khuli katcheri) when delimitation exercise is carried out as it affects the citizen’s right of representation. EVM will need a similar sort of public interface by the ECP to create trust in the integrity of the institution to conduct the elections fairly and protect secrecy of the vote.
- Feasibility to Pilot testing is another important process that contributes to national debate on electoral reform ref introduction of EVM. Globally countries that have adopted, improvised and /or rejected EVM have undertaken these decisions on the basis of years of dialogue and pilot testing. India initiated EVM in 1980 and started using it nationwide in 2009.
EVM has been under discussion with the ECP for over 10-15 years under introduction of technologies in electoral process. EVM was pilot tested in NA-4, by-election, in Peshawar on 21.10.2107. The ECP prepared a report, dated 14.11.2017, which has been submitted to the government, reportedly twice, and remains non-commented. 100 EVMs were deployed at 35 polling stations that were used by 12,419 voters. The report concluded that (i) efficacy of the EVM were 50%; (ii) the constituency consisted of rural area in majority and facilitated illiterate voters; (iii) ROs were non cooperative that created administrative & operational issues; (iv) the batteries of control unit & VVPAT drained very fast and power extension were not available; (v) paper slips of VVPAT got stuck in majority of units; (vi) sensor of voting pads were hard making it difficult to press; (vii) 2 units had damaged VGA cable; and (viii) EVM had software hanging issue making it slow that added into lag time. The ECP recommended to the government to continue exploration with EVM vendors for improved technology; and pilot testing, especially in urban area, for a customized solution for Pakistan.
- Costing for EVM. This includes the machine itself, programming software, hardware & update, its maintenance and storage. EVM is an expensive option that require in-depth cost benefit analysis v.v. paper based balloting. Such cost estimation has to include EVM’s per unit cost, technology cost, storage, transportation, maintenance and redundancy. For a cash strapped country that has to procure EVM it means forex allocation and international procurement under government rules. This in itself requires comprehensive qualitative and quantified data analysis. At least 20% more EVM will be procured over and above polling stations cost to cater to training and serve as back up inc ase of substitution requirement on poll day. It is expected that in next general elections Pakistan may cross the number of polling station to over 100,000. If 80% of them have four booths each the costing requirements for EVM will surely go into millions of USD. The question will remain what if EVM cannot deliver as RTS and RMS could not? In that case it will have the whole electoral process in a downward spiral spin that can lead to a constitutional and political crisis. Hence, it requires cautious and calibrated decision making with the input of all stakeholders.
4.a: It has been reported for a year that Pakistan will be ready with its nationally produced prototype EVM by July-August 2021. However, conflicting statements form ex and present Minister for Science and technology makes it difficult to realistically assess the expectation. The ECP reportedly has not been involved in the process. The fact remains that availability of prototype is not equivalent of its ability to be put in use and operational capacity. It will require time scaled pilot testing to demonstrate its efficiency and efficacy besides acceptability of the political stakeholders before its deployed.
4.b: Security features of EVM in terms of software & hardware technology is another cost element. EVM runs on a customized programme, software and hardware. Global experience informs that irrespective of its security features, it carries the risk of malfunction and/or manipulation. For example, what if during storage or transportation the software programme is replaced with an unauthorized one? Or malfunction is introduced in hardware that reprograms recording of votes to benefit a candidate or political party. Therefore, selection of vendor and its history in case of international procurement needs extensive assessments. In case of national production of EVM it will require security standards that will need to be anchored in Election Act and ancillary rules.
4.c: Selection of EVM is heavily dependent on availability and ease of technology in terms of its usability, security features and most importantly how long would it take for the technology to be redundant. This means that how many general elections can be conducted on the procured EVM? The critical question in terms of cost benefit analysis is that how many elections would the technology & machine last i.e. 1 or at least 2 general election? Imagine if an EVM is only valid to be used in one election? Can a country like Pakistan procure new EVMs for each general election? Historically, procurement of ballot boxes, tamper proof ballot bags and voting screens, among others, have been undertaken with international donor assistance for the ECP. Would international donors be ready to support massive procurement of the EVMs which as of now are not part of any consensus based electoral reform or dialogue?
General global experiences also inform that EVM vendors provide support for software and hardware upgrades, machine maintenance, configuration/ reconfiguration during the idle period, as and if required. However, most of it is not free and has cost attached to it. Such technological supports also need to have stakeholders buy-in to enable trust that the opportunity was not used to create fraud or system tampering.
4.d: Storage of EVM is not same as of ballot boxes. It requires a customized storage place that has no dampness, dust and/or rodent, for example. The batteries used in the EVM units need to be taken out and stored separately, as per its instruction manual, to protect them from leak or damaged during storage. The ECP hires ordinary storage facilities for ballot box and election material which are not ideal and even ballot boxes, despite being sturdy, have reported to been damaged during storage.
Safe storage of EVM is an important contributor to stakeholders’ trust and public perception that the unit has not been subject to any tampering while in storage. Currently the storage spaces that the ECP used are hired premises.
4.e:Transportation requirements of EVM are also a contributing cost of adopting the technology. It may replace ballot paper, ballot boxes and election supplies for the poll day but it would remain fragile machine that needs proper transportation. It can not be dumped in an open van like ballot boxes for transportation from storage to RO’s office.
Administratively, PrOs are given a paltry sum of PKR 3000-5000 for to/from transportation of election materials. We have witnessed these being put on top of car which can’t be the case for an EVM. A PrO of a polling station having 4 booths where over 30 candidates are contesting at minimum will have 36 units to transport. On the poll day public transport is suspended so imagine a PrO managing its transportation to polling station and add a layer of complexity for a female PrO. In distant areas PrO have to ensure its transportation to the location a night before. At the end of polling, the EVMs need to be brought back to RO offices. In last election pooled vehicles were allocated for election supplies and ballots return. Imagine a scenario with EVM that will require Hiaces or SUV and a an additional help to load and unload which has a substantial a cost element.
4.f: Availability of uninterrupted power supply or UPS back up will be required. EVM can operate on battery but for a number of reason instance of battery leakage or quick drainage has been noted. The ECP’s pilot also noted the same as core issue. This means the polling station has to be additionally equipped at a cost with uninterrupted power supply mechanism. Moreover, in case of battery leakage and quick drainage while in use it will require additional batteries to maintain continuity of the polling. In past practices it has always been the case where substantial polling stations are not equipped adequately. Non availability of electricity is the most common challenge, as noted in last election as well, besides non availability of mobile signals to reach out to security or ECP. The latter was a potent reason for the RTS to default. Both of them are not within the administrative parameters of the ECP to control.
4.g: Availability of IT staff for poll day trouble shooting of EVM should also be added into the cost of introducing EVM. The ECP will need technical staff nationwide for trouble shooting and provide technical back-up in case of issues on poll day. The ECP is encouraging use of technology but unfortunately does not have institutional wherewithal to support a sudden move to EVM.
On poll day, global experience indicates, that election management bodies will need tech trained staff in field to trouble shoot and even make alternate EVM unit available in case it is required. one tech person at maximum will be able to manage 5-6 polling station in shortest possible of time. The issues can range from simple VVPAT being stuck, software hanging or close button being accidentally pressed, etc. as were reported in ECP report of the EVM pilot testing. If one person per 6 polling station is engaged for 100,000 polling stations it means approx.17,000 persons. This will not means tech-persons alone but will need a vehicle and mobile to commute and connect which will be an additional expenditure.
4.h: Training of ECP and polling staff and training material will be an additional cost besides substantial number of EVM allocated for training purpose. Lets assume that the poll staff is at the same level as of General election 2018, i.e. 800,000. These people under went 2 days training on paper balloting despite the fact that the majority had gone through election duties. A similar 2 day tech training will be cost intensive as it will require high end Master Trainers; and will be heavily dependent on simulation and hands on practice. The ECP will have to invest in initial training for its own staff and a batch of Master trainers from the vendor especially for Master Trainers. Following this will be development of customized training material and manual alongwith a hands-on operational manual for EVM for poll staff that will be printed in both English and Urdu.
- Institutional positioning and technical capacity of the ECP to deploy and manage EVM:
Introduction of EVM will require ECP staff at HQ and provinces to be trained and technological experts at the payroll of the ECP (ref 4.g above) to protect secrecy to impartiality of process and yet ensure high quality delivery. Linked to this acceptance and trust of ROs on EVM which has been noted as otherwise in the ECP report of pilot testing that can increase administrative and operational challenges for all.
ECP has nascent inhouse IT based technical capacity to cater to EVM both at HQ and provincial level. Despite capacity augmentation, the ECP could not bear the technical backstopping for RTS and RMS that nosedived and became a question mark on its institutional capacities. The ECP had to engage/depute data entry operators for RMS which was a challenge and has no match with provision of tech staff for the EVM.
Expectantly in next general election the number of poll staff will increase in direct proportion to the increase in number of polling station which can be approximately 900,000. The poll staff is not on the permanent payroll of the ECP and is rather borrowed form government departments – mostly education sector; and in places persons from private section are also engaged. In each general, bye or local government election all of the poll staff under goes training which is a humongous cost to the government. This is a institutional drain cost for the ECP as the training neither remains with the institution nor benefits it after one day.
During the EVM pilot of NA-4 a total of 174 field and institutional candidates (100 & 50 simultaneously) were trained for 2 days to operate 100 machines; of which 165 were certified. The cost of the training is not known but if cost of i-voting is to be taken as a far-fetched example, lets’ be reminded that it costed PKR 95million to the government for approximately 7000 votes.
For general election imagine the cost of training for approx. 900,000 field, HQ and provincial staff, RO, DRO and large batch of technical back-stoppers. It will require Master trainers training first that can lead to a cascade training approach. It will also expand to training of judges engaged as part of election dispute resolution because EVM will have new versions of election dispute as well. Each category will require customized training modules, training and handbooks.
ECP will have to extend customized training to political parties especially for polling and election agents which are and will remain critical. Training will also be needed for media, security personnel and national election observers as well. This will require customized training material and handbooks for each. It will need linked changes in codes of conduct.
The ECP will have to undertake massive voter education campaign as well for general public on EVM. This may require them to partners with CSOs to ensure people can benefit from EVM.
Historically, trainings and training material and voter education campaign are undertaken with financial assistance of the international donors. Will international donors be ready to support this cost – which runs in millions of USD- if they are reluctant to support introduction of EVM without due diligence? Will government of Pakistan be able to bear this huge expenditure on an untested technology? Continued external dependence also need to be weighed out vis a vis investments in the ECP’s institutional and technical capacity augmentation over the years
- Election Violence & EVM is another critical issue. EVM’s control unit is easier to damage and/or takeaway than a ballot box. EVM does not reduce or eliminate election violence and intimidation of the polling staff and voters at the polling station. A simple cutting of cable connecting ballot and control unit can render the whole machine unusable and stall the process. The ballot stuffing can be done through EVM as well i.e. in a relatively empty booth in interior of Pakistan, votes can be punched in under influence of an intimidator. Similarly, it can be done in a hotly contested constituency by booth capturing. Numerically the ballot stuffing surely will be less as speed of ballot is pre-programmed in the EVM.
EVM is not the key but remains a tiny part that can contribute to fairness of electoral process that largely contribute to quick result tabulation. Above are some core issues that have institutional, technical and financial implications within administrative and operational realm. These must be addressed before the decision to deploy EVM is finalized. This require technical, institutional and socio-political vulnerability and risk analysis. This issue of EVM or not needs to be taken to drawing board where all stakeholders contribute concerns; technical experts are associated for input; and public hearings are held (likes that are held for delimitation) to ensure public buy-in.
EVMs are globally vulnerable to software attacks, vandalism, physical tampering to insert malicious hardware that can steal votes for the lifetime from the machines. Attackers with physical access between voting and counting can arbitrarily change vote totals and can learn which candidate each voter selected. These problems are deep rooted and our electoral processes remain under a conspiracy shadow. Therefore, EVM will remain a matter of distrust unless government makes it evident to the people that it has good intent and has validation of all stakeholders.