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The Rediff Election Special/

April 06, 2004

Part I: Don't stamp the paper, just press the button!

Ballot papers used to be the ubiquitous symbol of Indian democracy. But in the four-phase Lok Sabha election starting this month, the papers will not be seen as the Election Commission deploys state-of-the-art electronic voting machines, or EVM, in approximately 800,000 polling stations across the country.

India's expertise with the gadget is being watched with great curiosity by many countries across the world. Last year, in an international conference on democracy in London, a number of Commonwealth nations decided to replicate this Indian model. presents a ready reckoner on the modern voting tool.

What is an Electronic Voting Machine?

An EVM is a simple, reliable, tamper-proof, error-free equipment that allows a voter to choose one from among several candidates. The EVM is designed to collect, record, store, count and display polling data with cent per cent accuracy.

How does it function?

An EVM consists of two units, the control unit and the balloting unit, joined by a 5 metre cable. The control unit is kept with the polling officer in the booth. The balloting unit is placed inside the voting compartment and used by the voter.

One balloting unit can handle 16 candidates. Up to four balloting units can linked with a single control unit to accommodate as many as 64 candidates.

What happens if the number of candidates in a constituency goes beyond 64?

In that case the EVM cannot be used in the constituency and the electoral authorities will have to revert to the conventional method of using ballot papers.

If there are only 10 candidates in a constituency and a voter presses any of the buttons from 11 to 16, will these votes not be wasted?

No. The excess panels are masked. Further, recording of votes from panels 11 to 16 is blanked electronically as the candidate switch is set at 10.

How many votes can be cast in one EVM?

One EVM can record a maximum of 3,840 votes. As the total number of electors in a polling station in India does not normally exceed 1,500, this capacity is more than sufficient.

So, how does one vote with the EVM?

The balloting unit is a small box atop which each candidate and his/her symbol are listed, in much the same manner as on a ballot paper. Against each candidate's name, a red LED [light-emitting diode] and a blue button are provided.

Instead of issuing a ballot paper as in the old days, the polling officer in charge of the control unit presses the ballot button. The voter then casts his vote by pressing the blue button against the name of the desired candidate.

As soon as the button is pressed, the LED lights up and the machine emits a long beep. This indicates that the vote has been registered in the control unit. The number of votes for the respective candidates is calculated automatically.

What happens if a voter presses the button twice?

When the selected button is pressed once, the red light next to it glows and a long beep is emitted. Thereafter the system is disabled. So even if you press the button again instantly, no more votes can be registered until the polling officer presses the ballot button on his control unit.

Is the vote confidential?

As confidential as ever. As in the previous system voting is done in separate enclosures. Even the polling officer will not be able to trace your vote.

Can an EVM be tampered with?

An EVM is controlled by a microprocessor with 'burn-in' software, which cannot be altered or replaced. Once the polling is over, the polling officer shuts the EVM by pressing the 'close' button. Mechanical, electrical, and software security features are provided to ensure the integrity of the polling data.

Can the EVM prevent booth-capturing?

If booth-capturing means taking away or damaging ballot boxes or papers, this evil cannot be prevented by the use of the EVM as the machines too can be taken away forcibly or damaged.

But if booth-capturing means miscreants intimidating polling personnel and stamping ballot papers en masse and escaping in a matter of minutes, this can be prevented.

When ballot papers are used, the miscreants can distribute among themselves all the 1,000 or so ballot papers assigned to a polling station, stamp them in a hurry, stuff them into the boxes, and escape before police reinforcements arrive.

But the EVM is programmed in such a way that it will record only five votes in a minute. As the recording of votes has to be through the control unit and balloting unit, whatever be the number of miscreants, they can record votes only at the rate of five per minute. Thus, in half-an-hour, the miscreants can record only a maximum of 150 votes. This is sufficient time in most cases for reinforcements to arrive.

Further, the presiding officer or one of the polling officers can always press the 'close' button as soon as they see intruders in the polling station. It is not possible to record any vote once the 'close' button is pressed.

So, briefly, what are the benefits of using the EVM?

This is a state-of-the-art election process, simple to install and operate. There is no scope for invalid votes and assures total secrecy of polling data. It facilitates quick and accurate counting, making it possible to declare the results the same evening. The machine can be reused by simply resetting it. It puts an end to the huge expenditure on printing, storing, and transporting ballot papers. It is also environment-friendly because it eliminates paperwork.

Who devised them?

The EVM has been designed by the Election Commission in collaboration with two public sector undertakings -- Bharat Electronics Ltd, Bangalore, and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd, Hyderabad -- after a series of meetings, prototypes, and extensive field trials. The EVMs are now manufactured by these two undertakings.

How many EVMs does the Election Commission have?

The Commission has nearly 600,000 EVMs and is procuring an additional 200,000 EVMs for use in the forthcoming election.

What happens if the power goes off or there is no electricity in a particular area?

EVMs are powered by an ordinary 6 volt alkaline battery manufactured by BEL and ECIL. Therefore, even in areas with no power connections, they can be used.

Don't the EVM need to be stored and used in air-conditioned rooms?

There is no need to air-condition the room/hall where EVMs are stored. What is required is only to keep the room/hall free from dust, dampness and rodents as in the case of ballot boxes.

What happens if the EVM in a particular polling station goes out of order?

An officer with spare EVMs is assigned to cover 10 polling stations on election day. He can quickly replace the out-of-order machine with a new one.

The votes recorded until the EVM went out of order will be safe in the memory of the control unit and can be retrieved at the time of counting.

When was the EVM first introduced in elections?

The EVM were first used in India almost two decades ago in the North Paravur assembly by-election in Kerala. The loser, A C Jose, successfully challenged the result and the courts ordered a re-election, though not on the grounds of tampering with the machines.

EVMs manufactured in 1989-1990 were used on an experimental basis in 16 assembly constituencies in the states of Madhya Pradesh (5) and Rajasthan (5) and the National Capital Territory of Delhi (6) during the elections to the respective legislative assemblies in November 1998.

What is the cost of these machines? Is it not too expensive to use EVMs?

The cost per EVM (one control unit, one balloting unit, and one battery) was Rs 5,500 at the time the machines were bought in 1989-1990. Though the initial investment is rather heavy, this is more than neutralised by the money saved in printing ballot papers in lakhs and storing and transporting them, and the substantial reduction in the counting staff required and the remuneration paid to them.

A sizeable section of the population being illiterate, will EVMs not pose a problem?

Voting by EVM is simpler than the conventional system, where you had to put the voting mark on or near the symbol of the candidate of your choice, fold the paper first vertically and then horizontally, and insert it in the ballot box. Now, you just have to press the blue button against the candidate and symbol of your choice and the vote is recorded. Rural and illiterate populations have had no difficulty in recording their votes and have, in fact, welcomed the use of EVMs.

Is it possible to use EVMs for simultaneous elections to Parliament and the state legislative assemblies?

Yes. The EVM has been designed with this requirement in view.

Does the use of the EVM slow down the pace of polling because of the five votes a minute limit?

No. In fact, the pace is quickened because it is no longer necessary for the voter to first unfold the ballot paper, mark his preference, then fold it again, go to the place where the ballot box is kept, drop it into the box, and push it in. Now, all that he has to do is go to the balloting unit and press the button next to the candidate and symbol of his choice.

With ballot boxes, counting is done after mixing the ballot papers. Is it possible to adopt this system when EVMs are used?

The normal rule is to count the votes polling station-wise. This is what is done when EVMs are used. The mixing method is used only in constituencies specially notified by the Election Commission. Even in such cases, the result from each EVM is fed into a master counting machine, in which case only the total result of an assembly/parliamentary constituency will be known and not the result in each polling station.

How long can the control unit store the result in its memory?

The control unit can store the result for 10 years or even longer.

Wherever an election petition is filed, the result of the election is subject to the final outcome of the case. The courts, in certain cases, may order a recount of votes. Can EVMs be stored for such a long time? Will the battery not leak or otherwise damage the EVM?

The battery is needed only to activate the EVM at the time of polling and counting. As soon as the task is over, the battery can be switched off, removed and stored separately. It then needs to be attached and switched on only when the machine is to be used again. Therefore, there is no question of the battery leaking or otherwise damaging the EVM.

Even when the battery is removed, the memory in the microchip remains intact. If the court orders a recount, the control unit can be reactivated by fixing the battery and it will display the result stored in the memory.

Is it true that sometimes, because of a short circuit or any other reason, a voter may get an electric shock while voting?

No. EVMs work on a 6 volt battery and there is no chance of the voter getting an electric shock at any time when handling the balloting unit.

Is it possible to program the EVM in such a way that initially, say, 100 votes are recorded exactly as the blue buttons are pressed, but thereafter votes are recorded only in favour of a particular candidate irrespective of which button is pressed?

The microchip used in EVMs is a read-only chip manufactured in the USA and sealed at the time of import. It cannot be opened and the program cannot be rewritten by anyone without damaging the chip. There is, therefore, no chance of programming EVMs in a particular way to select a particular candidate or party.

Is it not difficult to transport EVMs to the polling stations?

On the contrary, it is easier to transport EVMs than ballot boxes as EVMs are lighter, portable, and come with polypropylene carrying cases.

In the conventional system, it is possible to know the total number of votes polled at any particular point of time. In EVMs the 'result' portion is sealed and opened only at the time of counting. So how can the total number of votes polled be known on the date of polling?

In addition to the 'result' button, there is a 'total' button on the EVM. When this button is pressed, the total number of votes cast up to the time of pressing the button will be displayed without indicating the candidate-wise tally.

Ballot boxes are engraved to avoid any scope for complaints of their substitution. Is there any system of numbering EVMs?

Yes. Each control unit has a unique identification number painted on it with a permanent marker. This number is noted by the polling agents and also recorded in a register kept with the returning officer. The address tag attached to the control unit also indicates this identification number.

Is there any provision for the issue of tendered ballot papers when EVMs are used?

Yes. There is a provision for the issue of tendered ballot papers under the EVM system too. When such a situation arises, the voter concerned is issued an ordinary ballot paper. After marking the ballot paper with the arrow crossmark rubber stamp, the tendered ballot paper is put inside a cover specially provided for the purpose and sealed and kept with the presiding officer.

In the conventional system, before polling begins, the presiding officer shows the polling agents present that the ballot box to be used in the polling station is empty. Is there any such provision to satisfy polling agents that there are no hidden votes already recorded in the EVM?

Yes. Before polling begins, the presiding officer demonstrates to the polling agents present that there are no hidden votes in the machine by pressing the 'result' button. Thereafter, he will conduct a mock poll by asking the agents to record their votes and then take the result to satisfy them that it is strictly according to the choices recorded by them. Thereafter, the presiding officer will press the 'clear' button to clear the result of the mock poll and start the actual polling.

How can one rule out the possibility of recording further votes at any time after polling closes and counting begins?

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 vote.

Further, 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, at the close of the poll, will hand over to each polling agent present an account of the number of votes recorded. At the time of counting of votes, the total is tallied with this account and if there is any discrepancy this will be pointed out by the counting agents.

Photograph: Angela Zothanpuii demonstrates the workings of an EVM to polling officials in Aizawl, Mizoram, in November 2003. STR/AFP/Getty Images | Image: Uttam Ghosh

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