Security of India's electronic voting machines is questioned

Ram Kishan Yadav lost a race for Teekli village council head in July. He and others allege tampering with an electronic voting machine.
Ram Kishan Yadav lost a race for Teekli village council head in July. He and others allege tampering with an electronic voting machine. (Rama Lakshmi)

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By Rama Lakshmi
Wednesday, October 20, 2010

NEW DELHI - The world's largest democracy celebrated its transition from paper ballots to electronic voting six years ago, with officials praising a simple voting machine made in India as part of a great democratic leap forward.

But a growing number of critics are questioning the reliability of the machines, and some voters complain that buttons stick and lights flash on the wrong candidate when they cast ballots electronically. Some politicians have expressed doubts about the results of elections in the past two years.

Similar complaints have forced several countries, including the United States, to reconsider moves away from paper. The Netherlands, Ireland and Germany decided to do away with their machines.

But in India, which has an electorate larger than the population of the United States, Australia and Europe combined, many fear that going back to paper could mean a return to days-long vote counts and frequent allegations of fraud. The controversy carries great weight in India, where pride in the democratic system hinges on the fairness of its elections.

In April, in the southern city of Hyderabad, an Indian information technology engineer, Hari Prasad, and a professor from the University of Michigan, J. Alex Halderman, replaced the display unit of a machine with a cheap look-alike fitted with Bluetooth radio and then used a wireless signal to remotely change the count.

"We showed that India's electronic voting system is neither transparent nor secure and can be tampered with. Even a regular radio mechanic can do it," Prasad said.

The demonstration landed Prasad in jail for several days on charges that he had hacked a stolen government voting machine.

But after the results of his experience were posted on YouTube and broadcast on Indian television, many political parties wrote the Election Commission expressing fears about tampering. They also requested new machines that can spew out paper records of the votes cast.

The commission recently said it would consider incorporating a small paper printout to boost public confidence. But officials insist that the simple technology used in the machines make them tamper-proof.

"Even though we are an IT superpower, the strength of our machine is its simplicity. Our machines are the cheapest in the world, a little over $200 each," said S.Y. Quraishi, India's chief election commissioner. "With electronic voting, we have eliminated booth-capturing, stuffing the ballot box with rigged votes and malpractices on the counting table."

Bhutan and Nepal used Indian-made machines in their recent elections, and Bangladesh, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and South Korea have expressed interesting in buying them, he said.

The Indian machines go through several tiers of checks and security seals before polling. "The machines may be failing elsewhere in the world, but they are working fine in India. The world can come and learn from us," Quraishi said.


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