India polls powered by nifty technology

About a million units of unhackable electronic voting machines are being used in country’s parliamentary elections.

The voting machine is not networked to the Internet and is considered one of the finest innovations in India [EPA]

Technology is at the forefront of clean elections in India.

Not many know that a small portable electronic device made in India by Indians is at the heart of conducting free and fair elections taking place in the country.

More than a million units of these special calculator-like foolproof Electronic Voting Machines or EVMs are being used. In addition, the use of digital cameras, videotaping of speeches and the use of wireless networks are all helping in the conduct of elections.

Nifty deployment of technology is helping in the smooth conduct of elections in the world’s largest democracy. Officials tasked to conduct the mammoth polls can be seen carrying EVMs on boats and even on the backs of elephants in far off remote polling booths.

Not many countries can boast of using electronic voting. According to data from the US-based non-profit National Democratic Institute, a total of 14 countries now use remote internet voting for binding political elections’, adding that the number is actually declining. Some countries that have dabbled with electronic voting include Brazil, Germany, Venezuela, Canada, Belgium, Australia, UK, European Union and France.

Even the world’s oldest democracy the US still often resorts to paper ballots. Recall the fracas that was created in 2000 when former Vice President Al Gore lost his presidential challenge to George W Bush all thanks to what was called the “hanging chads” as the US had used paper ballots.

India is voting big time in what is being described as the world’s biggest dance of democracy. In a country of 1.2 billion people about 814 million voters – more than the combined population of the US and the European Union – are eligible to cast their ballot. Today, paper ballots are passé in India.

How EVMs work

The Indian electronic voting machine is a stand-alone battery powered robust white coloured device very similar in performance to a very basic calculator. It is the size of standard key board but a little thicker.

Uniquely, the Indian voting machine is not networked or linked to the internet and is considered one of the finest innovations in modern India. Hacking it is almost impossible.

“EVM have become the leitmotif of the world’s largest democratic exercise and it gets smarter with each avatar,” VS Sampath, the head of India’s independent electoral watchdog the Election Commission of India (ECI), said.

The voting machines are not the only high technology equipment being used widely in this long drawn out election which ends only on May 12. Digital cameras, videography of the election campaigning is playing a huge role, every election rally is videotaped by the Election Commission. If hate speeches are made the watchdog takes strong disciplinary action.

Interestingly, for the first time using the wide availability of internet on mobile phones or GPRS, the polling as it takes place is beamed back as a live feed to the Election Commission so that it can remotely keep a watch on the process. Also, live streaming video of “sensitive” polling stations is available for the public to view on the website of the election, this may help up clean up the election process. The live streaming is done such that the secrecy of the ballot is not violated.

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A whopping 1.4 million individual electronic voting machines will be used in 930,000 polling stations spread across the country. Since large parts of the country still do not have assured supply of electricity the machines are powered using batteries.

The voting data is recorded on a simple chip which has a small and simple software that is burnt onto the chip itself and each vote as it is cast is recorded directly on the chip. The machines are so robust that unless the chips themselves get destroyed, the data can be recovered even if the batteries die out or even if the power is accidentally cut off.

The machine itself consists of a control unit and a balloting unit connected using a long cable. The balloting unit is kept secluded so that the secrecy of the ballot is maintained. Several layers of seals ensure that the machines are not tampered with in any manner.

There is a double randomisation process which makes it impossible for any person to know which machine will be used in what constituency, this is done to safeguard that machines are not pre-programed to cast ballots in favour of a particular candidate.

“The randomisation process has been very successful and has effectively demonstrated the transparency and fairness of the electoral process,” Kishore Kanyal, an election official, said.

An electronic engineer from the US once suggested that he could tamper with the machines using a specially designed blue tooth enabled display unit, but in several open public demonstrations at the office of the ECI no one has been able to hack the EVMs. Even the Supreme Court of India heard a bunch of petitions challenging the robustness of machines, but it finally ruled that the EVMs were reliable and secure.

On counting day, the machines are removed from the strong room where they are kept under twenty four hour security and the votes polled are displayed sequentially in the presence of the observers of candidates and results declared in a matter of hours, modern communications technology is helping matters.

This year for the first time the electoral watchdog has ensured that a special button called “NOTA” or “none of the above” is available on each machine.

Feature: Choosing none of the above

The last time paper ballot was used it required about 8,000 tons of paper just to print the ballots which is the equivalent of cutting down about 120,000 full grown trees, so in a way the EVMs are greener and can be used repeatedly.

Technology is definitely aiding elections, Sampath said

“By and large use of muscle power has been controlled in India’s election process,” he said.