August 20, 2018

It’s Time for India to Face its E-Voting Problem

The unjustified arrest of Indian e-voting researcher Hari Prasad, while an ordeal for Prasad and his family, and an embarrassment to the Indian authorities, has at least helped to focus attention on India’s risky electronic voting machines (EVMs).

Sadly, the Election Commission of India, which oversees the country’s elections, is still sticking to its position that the machines are “perfect” and “fully tamperproof”, despite evidence to the contrary including convincing peer-reviewed research by Prasad and colleagues, not to mention the common-sense fact that no affordable electronic device can ever hope to be perfect or tamperproof. The Election Commission can no longer plausibly deny that EVM vulnerabilities exist. The time has come for India to have an honest, public conversation about how it votes.

The starting point for this discussion must be to recognize the vulnerabilities of EVMs. Like paper ballots, the ballots stored in an EVM are subject to tampering during and after the election, unless they are monitored carefully. But EVMs, unlike paper ballots, are also subject to tampering before the election, perhaps months or years in advance. Indeed, for many EVMs these pre-election vulnerabilities are the most serious problem.

So which voting system should India use? That’s a question for the nation to decide based on its own circumstances, but it appears there is no simple answer. The EVMs have problems, and old-fashioned paper ballots have their own problems. Despite noisy claims to the contrary from various sides, showing that one is imperfect does not prove that the other must be used. Most importantly, the debate must recognize that there are more than two approaches — for example, most U.S. jurisdictions are now moving to systems that combine paper and electronics, such as precinct-count optical scan systems in which the voter marks a paper ballot that is immediately read by an electronic scanner. Whether a similar system would work well for India remains an open question, but there are many options, including new approaches that haven’t been invented yet, and India will need to do some serious analysis to figure out what is best.

To find the best voting system for India, the Election Commission will need all of the help it can get from India’s academic and technical communities. It will especially need help from people like Hari Prasad. Getting Prasad out of jail and back to work in his lab would not only serve justice — which should be reason enough to free him — but would also serve the voters of India, who deserve a better voting system than they have.

Comments

  1. Lets face it; a person who is in posession of a government property “illegally” will be taken into custody by the law enforcement agency. This is true for any country that has a rule of law in place. The rule does not differentiate a person who is in posession of the property, based what his end objective is. That is, a person who uses the illegally possessed property for academic puprpose, or a person who uses it for vote rigging, a person who uses it for vote rigging, but claims that he used it for academic purpose, a person who uses it for academic purpose and later for vote rigging etc, are all the same in the eyes of the law.
    However, the question whether the person is guilty of not, will be determined by a judicial body. Everyone is entitled to be innocent until proven guilty. Fortunately, this applies in India/ for Indians as well, in case you did not know. Therefore, I do not agree with you on your first sentence that the arrest was an injustice. It is injust if the person in question is not arrested, since that makes a criminal thug who is involved in a booth/EVM hijack, on the counts of posessing a government porperty illegally, an innocent party by the same token.
    On the other hand, he does expose some important security issues, which should be appreciated as a separate issue in itself. I am sure the researcher, being an intelligent guy, would/should have anticipated the repercussions.

    • From what I understood, the researchers obtained the voting machine in a legal way. But this might be disputed of course. He didn’t seem to be arrested for having the voting machine though, but for not telling who gave it to him.

      As a side note, it seems here that the government ordered the police to arrest him, is that even legal?

  2. “As a side note, it seems here that the government ordered the police to arrest him, is that even legal?”

    Even though you make a good guess work regarding the statement, you will be surprised to know that it is indeed legal, as is the case with any democratic country 😉

    ” At the union (federal) level, the agencies are part of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, and support the states in their duties. Since the federal nature of the Constitution of India mandates law and order as a subject of the state, the bulk of the policing lies with the respective states and territories of India. Larger cities also operate metropolitan police, also under the state government. All senior police officers in the state police forces, as well as those in the federal agencies, are members of the Indian Police Service (IPS).”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_police

    you may also be interested in this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Separation_of_powers

  3. Sounds like Election 2004 in America! Except no one was arrested here.
    I wonder if India gets all our hand me downs…

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  4. Gopiballava says:

    Given the regular advances in electronics miniaturization, how can an e voting machine ever be trusted? You could build a wireless transceiver into most buttons or switches, among other things.

    I have two ideas:

    1. Set up a system of randomized post election EVM hardware teardowns. Have independent groups tear some machines apart and look into the innards. You’d have to do the statistics to figure out how many to tear apart, etc. You could target areas with opinion poll::result discrepancies and close races.

    2. High voltages and current. Sure, you can build a low power RF transceiver into a toggle switch. Now we’ll add 110v 1A switching (just guessing the numbers…). Something engineers determine is impractical to switch in solid state in the switches

    3. The Indian system was supposedly secure due to its use of close to election randomization. Do one better. Have a hardware module that permutes the switches. Install one on each unit election day. Clear window with an opaque cover. After voting you remove the cover and use it to read out the results. Some variation on this might be better, but the core idea is a secret that is hidden from everybody until after the election.

    (I apologize if these are common ideas. I’m a computer scientist but I don’t follow e-voting publications too closely, so I don’t know if these are common in the literature)

  5. “Lets face it” said: “a person who is in posession of a government property “illegally” will be taken into custody by the law enforcement agency. This is true for any country that has a rule of law in place.”

    Of course, you assume that there is real rule of law in India including uniform enforecement which is sadly not true. Many laws are not enforced, including some very draconian laws which remain in the books waiting for opportunities for abuse.

    Contrary to what you say, in India there is no guarantee and not even reliable indication that corrupt officials, judges or policemen will be taken into custody either for possessing stolen equipment worth a few hundred dollars, or for receiving millions of dollars in bribes, or for favoring certain private companies owned by their relatives… Most often it is the corrupt who roam free while whistle blowers are harassed.

    Read this Whistle Blower Success and Tragedies