EVMs questioned | By Dr Basit Shahzad


EVMs questioned

ELECTRONIC voting helps in conducting the elections by using the technology to bring trans parency and trust in the process.

Due to the mistrust in conventional methods of conducting elections, the winner of the election is always questioned, and the loser doesn’t accept the results.

The unacceptability of results provokes street agitation which affects civic life, and the economic activity is badly affected by such protests.

The cost of blockage in the economic activity sometimes reaches billions of rupees when the span of agitation prolongs.

In this scenario, it seems to be a challenge to develop such a mechanism that ensures that transparency is not compromised when the elections are conducted.

The technology can be an instrument of change in this regard to facilitate the transparent election and to develop the trust of the voters in the electronic voting systems.

One way of implementing electronic voting is through the deployment of electronic voting machines (EVMs).

Significant problems, including the voter’s verifiability, transparency, hardware, algorithm, gradual deployment, paper trail, lack of training, and trust deficit are the major challenges that need to be discussed and resolved before the EVMs can be used at a high level to formulate the national government. Following are the key questions and concerns that can be raised about the EVM’s.

(a). Hardware: The EVM consists of the hardware and software. The hardware has to be dependable to operate in diversified circumstances and has to provide foolproof remedies in case of the physical theft of the EVMs or physical damage to the equipment.

To demonstrate that the EVM is dependable, dependability testing has to be conducted to ensure that EVMs can provide a reliable platform.

The stress testing needs to be done to ensure that the machine is capable to handle sufficient load and does not heat-up or deuterate on the polling day.

(b). Digital-Divide: Pakistan’s current literacy rate is about 58%. However, the number is further low when it comes to literacy in terms of operating the EVMs.

Being very optimistic if we consider it to be 40%, it means that there is a deficit of 60% population that does not have enough orientation to use the EVM.

(c). Algorithm: The algorithm/software being used in the EVM has to be beyond any iota of doubt. The software can be programmed to misfunction.

If the EVM misfunctions or is programmed to misfunction, the EVMs and their results will not be accepted by the stakeholders, perhaps for the right reasons.

In this regard, the algorithm/software used in the machine needs to be authentic, verified, tested and trusted through crowd testing of the software.

The element of trust in EVM can’t be established without a considerable review of the software.

(d). Paper trail privacy of vote: The EVMs initially were designed to function without paper trail but it was deemed as a piece of necessary evidence when there are disputes.

Likewise, the results of EVMs are matched with the results of paper votes to establish that the process was secure.

However, an important question is that if the record is to be verified through the paper trail, what is the justification for having EVM? And if the paper trail is not used how the record verification is made when a dispute arises? The use of EVM however seems to be a redundant activity in both cases.

(e). Trust: Though electronic voting may bring a significant change in the voting process, yet the adaptation of the EVMs should be gradual.

In the first instance the EVMs may be used in school/college union elections, then in local bodies elections, later in the by-elections, and lastly in the national elections.

The system must attain a gradual trust of the stakeholders before it can be deployed to form the national government.

The exercise may take 5-10 years and should not be hassled to break the trust cycle. Trust in technology can’t be gained through shortcuts.

The proposal for gradual deployment is consistent with the Indian elections where EVMs are used.

In India, the first full-fledged election on EVMs was conducted in 2009, and before that, for some 10/15 years, EVMs were used on an experimental basis in different states.

(f). Skilled Technicians: In the 2018 elections, some 85,000 polling stations were established while in the 2023 elections it is expected that some 100,000 polling stations will be established.

In case the EVMs are used for the elections, skilled and trained manpower will be needed to provide technical support if run-time errors are observed.

If a technician can provide support to (let’s say) four polling stations on the polling day, around 25,000 skilled technicians will be needed to keep the system up and running, and that too in the case when the problems are small and do not occur at different polling stations in parallel.

It is not clear that how such a large number of technicians can be trained in a small-time to provide extended support on the polling day.

To make the EVM acceptable to the stakeholders it must satisfy the following technological parameters:
(1). The machine is dependable and the results of dependability testing are available for the public.

(2). In case of damage or physical theft of the EVM, alternate measures have been suggested.

(3). The working of the EVM is understandable to common people.

(4). Enough training on the system has been (will be) provided to the polling staff and the voters.

(5). The software has not been programmed to malfunction and is free from intentional errors.

(6). The stakeholders have trust in the software.

(7). The paper trail is verifiable through the electronic record.

(8). The EVM has been tested at college union, local govt, and by-elections, successfully.

(9). The problems faced in gradual deployment have been resolved

. (10). Resources to manufacture EVMs are available.

(11).Training to some 30,000 technicians has been provided. (12). The polling staff is trained to run system without any considerable problem.

In the recently developed EVMs, it has to be seen that all above parameters need to be strongly positive before the gradual deployment of the system can be thought of.

In recent times Blockchain has emerged as a secure, dependable, flawless, and automated technology to ensure transparency in many areas of digital governance, including electronic voting.

The author has developed a Blockchain-based e-voting framework that uses BJPC (Basit& Jon’s Proof of Completeness) to implement a transparent blockchain-based electronic voting platform in the country.

—The author is an Associate Professor of Computing at NUML Islamabad:

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