The Bangladesh Election Commission plans to introduce Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) in the forthcoming national election in 2019. Some political parties, meanwhile, have questioned whether EVM would subsequently increase chances of election engineering through the manipulation of electoral results. In this context, a vivid discussion from a technological point of view is essential.
Before going any further, let us discuss the objectives, working principle and construction of EVM. According to Wikipedia, “electronic voting refers to voting using electronic means to either aid or take care of the chores of casting and counting votes.” The very objective of EVMs is to automate the election process, especially in casting and counting votes. Definitely this automation should speed up the election process effectively and efficiently without introducing any intentional or unintentional errors.
A complete EVM consists of two units—Control Unit and Balloting Unit with cables connecting it to the Control Unit. The Control Unit is kept with the Presiding Officer and the Balloting Unit is used by voters for polling.
The Balloting Unit of an EVM is a small box-like device, on top of which each candidate and his/her election symbol is listed like a big ballot paper. Against each candidate's name, a red LED and a blue button is provided. The voter casts his vote by pressing the blue button against the name of his/her desired candidate. The Control Unit keeps track of the casting of votes against each candidate and subsequently generates the electoral result. As soon as the last voter has voted, the Polling Officer in charge of the Control Unit will press the “close” button. Thereafter, the EVM will not accept any votes. After voting ends, the Balloting Unit is disconnected from the Control Unit and kept separately. Votes can be recorded only through the Balloting Unit. Again, the Presiding officer, once voting ends, will hand over to each polling agent an account of the votes recorded. When votes are being counted, the total will be tallied with this account and if there is any discrepancy, this will be pointed out by the counting agents. During the counting of votes, the results are displayed by pressing the “result” button. There are two safeguards to prevent the “result” button from being pressed before the counting of votes officially begins: i) “This button cannot be pressed till the 'close' button is pressed by the Polling Officer in-charge at the end of the voting process in the polling booth.” ii) “This button is hidden and sealed; this can be broken only at the counting centre in the presence of designated office.” So, from a technological point of view, the general working principle of EVMs is not at all that complex.
The US, India and many other countries have effectively used EVMs in their electoral processes, although not without controversies. Bangladesh first used EVMs in the 2012 Chittagong Municipality Corporation Election and later in the Comilla City Council Election. The use of EVMs in those elections was quite satisfactory.
Yet, there is an ethical debate over the use of EVMs in the electoral process. To evaluate the nature and extent of this debate, we need to have a clear picture of the electronic voting process.
The success of any election depends on an error-free voter database, vote-casting and vote-counting process. Creation of erroneous voter database may be intentional or unintentional. Creating an error-free voter database without any political motivation should come first if we want to ensure an impartial election. A voter database may also be erroneous due to (unintentionally) mistaken data entries. In this context, it may be noted that in the 2000 presidential election in the US, some voters failed to cast their votes due to erroneous information being inserted into the database. So, precaution should be taken during the data-entry phase.
The major complaint against EVM is that in the existing system, there is no paper trail for recounting the ballots like in the traditional system. Moreover, source codes of EVM software is a business secret of vendor companies and so, it is not possible to examine whether any fraudulent codes are written into it. Besides the manipulation of the software, any insider can also manipulate its hardware by inserting a malicious component that can steal votes. Moreover, any person who has access to EVMs can take the memory card out and insert a new one with an intention of tampering the electoral outcome. It is perhaps because of such loopholes that some countries like Ireland, Italy, Germany, Netherlands and Finland have rejected the use of EVMs in their electoral processes.
There is no doubt, however, that its use also has many advantages. The best thing being that it saves a lot of time. The counting of votes is done within the shortest possible time. And, if properly maintained, bogus voting is greatly reduced as the vote is recorded only once.
Now the question is whether EVMs should be used in our national election or not. The answer fully depends on how we address the loopholes of this system as discussed above. The first and foremost issue is that voters and relevant stakeholders (mainly political parties) should have trust in this new system. Though EVMs have been used in local government elections, we have to keep in mind that the national election is completely different because of its size and political importance. So, before introducing EVMs in the forthcoming national election, the Election Commission (EC) should make voters and other relevant stakeholders confident in using this technology. For this, the EC needs to address the following loopholes so that stakeholders trust the electronic process.
i) The major flaw of EVMs is that there are no paper-trails for the counting of ballots in case of any complaint by any candidate(s). Technologically, this can be resolved quite easily. The EVMs could be connected to a printer which will eventually print ballots in a locked opaque box as votes are being cast. If recount is necessary, then these deposited ballots can be counted to ensure that there is no mismatch.
ii) For improved security, biometric information of voters, especially fingerprints, should be used as input with a view to restricting false voting.
iii) Sufficient backup of batteries and UPS should be maintained so that there is no interference in the electoral process because of power outage.
iv) The most important thing for any election is the creation and maintenance of a flawless voter database. The data-entry work for this should be done carefully to avoid the insertion of any erroneous data into it in the first place.
Mohammad Anwarul Kabir is working as Senior Assistant Professor in the Department of CS, AIUB.