Home > Random Thoughts > The Indian Electronic Voting Machines

The Indian Electronic Voting Machines

It looks like my broadcast on Indian EVMs wasn’t enough. Via The Acorn’s twitter feed, I discovered that Rajeev Srinivasan has made the integrity of EVMs an issue. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

There is, of course, the possibility that the average voter did not in fact fall for the UPA’s charms, and that this election was subject to massive fraud. I am talking about Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). Having spent many years in the high-tech world, I do not trust computers, especially embedded systems. Researchers in the US have shown how easy it is to break into EVMs, which is why they have not adopted them. They have realised how important it is to have a paper audit trail, hanging chads and all.

It would not be extraordinarily difficult to install a programme with a Trojan Horse in it. To outward appearances and to ordinary testing, the programme would appear normal. However, when it is fed a sequence of keystrokes by the agent of the party committing the fraud, the Trojan Horse wakes up, and then, regardless of what buttons the voter actually presses, it can assign a certain (non-suspicious-looking) percentage (not 90% but, say 45%) to the preferred party. The Trojan Horse can even be programmed to quietly delete itself when the voting is over. Nobody would know any better, as there is no paper trail.

Let me emphasise that I do not have any evidence that this happened in 2009, but it is worth investigating. There were too many surprising — almost miraculous — victories by certain candidates whom the casual observer would have written off. By Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is fraud. I would like to note in passing that in 2004, expecting the NDA to commit fraud, an Indian Communist in the US had prepared a suit alleging EVM fraud. Therefore it is clear that the thought has occurred to various people that there could be EVM fraud. [Rediff]

Firstly, let us do away with the stuff about Occam’s Razor and that the “thought has occurred to various people” and that some NRIs had “prepared a suit”. None of these things are relevant. Occam’s Razor is not an infallible law (just read at its Wikipedia entry, okay). There are plenty of phenomena where the simplest explanation is just plain bullshit. There are plenty of thoughts that occur to plenty of people, and those are also crap (OMG! NASA faked the moon landing). And for the very same reason, someone “preparing” a legal suit (leave alone actually filing it) is also no proof of the legitimacy of a claim (e.g. legal challenges to the Large Hadron Collider).

Now, we can come to the meat of the issue. Before I discuss it any further, I want you to read up a bit. The links were all cited in my previous post on the “issue”, but here they are again to get you up to speed on technical and other issues involved:

Please note that some degree of comfort with technology is essential to understand this topic. Else, you’ll just fall for crappy logic like “it is electronic, so it must be hackable”. I am not going to rehash everything written in those articles and documents, but will restrict myself to answering some common questions that have been raised (will update this post, if required).

Researchers in the US have shown how easy it is to break into EVMs, which is why they have not adopted them. They have realised how important it is to have a paper audit trail, hanging chads and all.

This has already been answered in my previous post, and the links cited above should take care of this. If not, you should read this fairly detailed comparison of Indian EVMs against the American ones. There is no real parallel between the two situations, and it pains me to see a widely-read columnist raise this false flag.

As an aside, a “paper audit trail” for individual votes in India will, ironically, make the election less free and fair. Why? As of now, many voters screw several parties by accepting their freebies and then voting for whoever they want. So, paying someone 500 bucks does not guarantee that he will vote for you. But with an American-style paper-based confirmation of who you’ve voted for, the political “vote marshals” will simply ask the voter to show them his “receipt” before shelling out whatever price they are paying for his vote.

[Updated to add: Please see comment by Amit below for a clarification on the American process. I misinterpreted the paper audit trail system of US. It would, however, still be a less reliable system because of “hanging chads” and the headache of storing the receipts securely for a period of time till the possibility of recount is eliminated. Whatever else the US might have, the Indian voting system (not the entire electoral process, just the voting system) appears far more robust in comparison.]

It would not be extraordinarily difficult to install a programme with a Trojan Horse in it.

Actually, it will be extraordinarily difficult. The EVMs are not networked in any way. They are locked physically. To break open the physical seal, then break open the rest of the machine to access the chip, and then to do something with the chip will require an extraordinary amount of time. This not a trivial thing, because there are hundreds of thousands of EVMs. And they are not left outside without supervision. To allege that they can be easily tampered with, despite monitoring by a good number of security personnel and agents of various political parties, is to indulge in a conspiracy theory of the looniest sort.

Oh, almost forgot, the chip is actually hardcoded with the voting program. If you try to modify the program or install anything on it, the chip will get damaged and the EVM will not function anyway.

To outward appearances and to ordinary testing, the programme would appear normal. However, when it is fed a sequence of keystrokes by the agent of the party committing the fraud, the Trojan Horse wakes up, and then, regardless of what buttons the voter actually presses, it can assign a certain (non-suspicious-looking) percentage (not 90% but, say 45%) to the preferred party. The Trojan Horse can even be programmed to quietly delete itself when the voting is over.

So, what if the chip is manipulated at the manufacturing plant itself? How do you prevent “fraud” then? First of all, most voting machines are reused. Which means that most of them have been produced several years ago. In fact, many of them must have been produced while the NDA was in power as well. How can anyone ensure “reliable” fraud in such a scenario?

But leave such practical considerations aside, let us just assume that a chip has been altered at the manufacturing plant to do the kind of thing Rajeev is insinuating. Well, if you’ve read the articles and documents cited above, by now you know that the EVMs are not hardcoded with the names of political parties. They are merely hardcoded with the voting slot numbers. Which party will be assigned which number, is not something that is uniform across India either. It varies from one constituency to another, and of course, from one election to another. Further, the assignment itself is not electronically coded in the machine. The election officials do it manually. This is important: there is no electronic connection between a party’s slot assignment and the machine’s vote registration mechanism. The machine only knows that a vote has been cast for Slot No. 2 (for example). It has no clue as to the Party for which this vote has been cast.

[Updated to add: The slot assignment, AFAIK, is done at constituency level and the numbers are in alphabetical order of candidates’ names. This is essentially the same as the ballot papers were done under the paper-based system earlier. If you think about it, if it was done in the parties’ names, there will be a huge fight over who will get Slot No. 1 or some other “lucky” number etc. so this is a fair system.]

So, even if there was the world’s largest conspiracy ever and a political party managed to get a malicious piece of code into the EVMs, it will still not be able to ensure that it benefits from the malicious code more than other parties.

That takes care of Rajeev’s flights of fancy. I wanted to highlight one valid point, which was made by Gautam John over Twitter:

But you’re still assuming the source code is clean. Why would I make that assumption? [Twitter]

Two issues. In field gaming and pre-field gaming. In field is very hard to do. Pre-field, who knows? Open code for everyone! [Twitter]

I have, of course, not assumed that the source code is clean. I have merely concluded that even if a political party were to be successful in manipulating the code at the time of chip production, it would still not be able to reap the benefits.

However, the valid point, which he doesn’t explicitly state is this: if the source code is not clean, the machine could malfunction. In practice, this is taken care of (partially) by tallying the number of votes cast at a polling booth (which is counted on paper-based electoral rolls) and the number of votes counted by the EVMs (which is an electronic count). If these numbers tally, it means that the EVMs have neither missed out a vote, nor inflated the vote count in any way.

However, this does not ensure that the machine has counted the votes correctly. For example, assume that 1000 votes were cast at a polling booth and the paper count tallies with the EVM count. Does this mean that the EVM could not have counted – by some technical mistake – 100 Congress votes for BJP? Such mistakes can arise for a variety of reasons: temperature or humidity fluctuations could affect the chip, or some bug in the code could cause it to mis-assign the vote etc. True, since it is virtually impossible for the political parties to wilfully manipulate the EVMs, such technical errors will probably even out on average. Nonetheless, such inaccuracy is indeed theoretically possible and undesirable for the health of a democracy.

There has been a technical evaluation of the EVMs by a committee chaired by Prof. Indiresan (the report has been linked above, and you have read it, right?), so I am not unduly worried about such possibilities. I would, however, be a bit more comfortable if the source code was in public domain.

To conclude, as a simple analogy, consider that you have to make an uncomplicated calculation (which is pretty much what Indian EVMs do). You can do it over a non-programmable cheap calculator, or in Microsoft Excel on a networked computer. Which one do you think is easier to manipulate by outside agents? Which one do you think is more prone to hackers?

Low-tech solutions may have fewer features, but it is easier to make them quite sturdy. That’s one of the reasons why my family’s 25+ year old Kelvinator fridge is still going strong, and so is the EC-TV (it is lying in the basement, but it still works) purchased when Ramayana started on Doordarshan, while our later purchases have not been so long-lasting.

It is nobody’s case that Indian EVMs, by themselves, can ensure a free and fair election (old-style booth capturing can still be done, though at a much higher risk and a much lower reward). But, those who come up with all kinds of conspiracy theories should have some shred of proof or technological feasibility to support their case before casting aspersions over the legitimacy of Indian elections.

Note: This post has been typed in a hurry. Sorry for the typos, and if I missed out on some issue.

Leave a comment

  1. May 20, 2009 at 1:44 am


    You have carried the point everything in a straight line from the starting of this post. But think of the following scenario?

    1. There are 7 lakh EVMs in india, and how does a party/candidate ensure that the EVM’s that he received is genuine? What is the probability, that a similar kind of EVM is manufactured at some other locations and then inserted to reach a particular constituency?

    2. Whether its electronic or ballot voting, it all depends on the Election Commission that is going to implement it. In the case of current CEC, its well known that he is extremely biased to Congress, and that a report on him by the outgoing CEC Gopalswami was withheld for no reason.
    How can we ensure, that there is no pre-programmed EVMs deliberately inserted with his help, to certain constituencies. For eg, set of 50 constituencies alone?

    3. There are many cases, where a particular polling booth is the strong hold of a particular party, but the election commission result shows only few votes in that booth for that party. This is where the entire doubt arises, and how can that happen, without tampering the EVM, either pre-programmed, or changing the numbers after election?

    4. Everyone knows how Chidambaram won sivaganga constituency, and what is your reply for that?

  2. May 20, 2009 at 1:51 am

    Everyone knows how verificication by an agency (as recent as price water coopers who verified and certified satyam account) happens.. and what is the gaurantee, that the agency who verified the voting machine has done it correctly? or did not deliberately approve a faulty or malicious code?

    Seconldy, the same agency does not verify each and every voting machine that is passed out of the factory. And even a layman knows, that its easy to do subvert the system to achieve what we wanted.

    My point is that what if a similar copy of the same chip is made with an extra wireless feature, that is repalaced at the manufacturing unit.

    In this case, the functionality of the both the certified and modified chip is same, but the later with an extra wireless feature, so that the core group can remotely modify the final results, from a central location.

    If you are saying “It cant happen”, please justify it.

  3. dictator1
    May 20, 2009 at 2:30 am

    You are making a common mistake of the interwebs – asking people to read informative articles that explain your point (especially people who have conspiracy theories on their mind). On interwebs, you are supposed to vehemently argue your stance based on hearsay/ assumptions by “blog theorists/pajama clad commenters” and then rapidly descend to a form of Godwin’s law.
    And I apologize for breaking your explicit demand to not read blogposts. But arent you glad I have authority problem?

  4. May 20, 2009 at 9:10 am

    Good post. I have one point to clarify.

    You wrote:
    But with an American-style paper-based confirmation of who you’ve voted for, the political “vote marshals” will simply ask the voter to show them his “receipt” before shelling out whatever price they are paying for his vote.

    As far as I know, the paper trail in America is *not* a receipt that the machine prints out and gives to the voter for him to take home, but is something that can be printed by the machine after the voter casts his vote, verified by the voter and then locked away in a safe place. (Mercuri method)
    Where I vote, in Boston, the ballot is still a sheet of paper on which we mark the candidate we vote for, and the machine is electronic – it accepts and reads the paper ballot and keeps track of number of votes, which are totaled at the end of the day in a print-out. The paper ballots are counted to double-check and ensure that the count by the machine matches the count of the paper ballots.

  5. May 20, 2009 at 10:13 am

    @Amit: Thanks for the info. I’ll edit the post.

    @senthil: Just read the articles and documents.

    @dictator1: *Sigh* I know! Not tolerating authority is the kind of thing we appreciate in dictators.

  6. May 20, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Is this Rajeev Srinivasan a serious commentator as such to merit such a long deconstruction ? The rest of his article is nothing but childish poutings of a sore loser.

  7. Ashish
    May 20, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    First of all, most voting machines are reused. Which means that most of them have been produced several years ago. In fact, many of them must have been produced while the NDA was in power as well.

    The fact that EVMs worked well during earlier elections is not really relevant as most of the EVMs used in this election were upgraded models manufactured specifically for the Lok Sabha elections. You can google for “upgraded evms” to confirm.

    Without better clarity around the security of the manufacturing process, it is impossible to discount the possibility of a Trojan embedded into the EVM and activated later on.

  8. May 20, 2009 at 3:08 pm


    You need to be fired. Forgive me, I gave up after a couple of lines of your post–I cannot believe you would space some much space for answering that idiot’s conspiracy theories.

  9. May 20, 2009 at 3:09 pm

    Oh damn

    ”waste so much space”*

    I should sleep. :)

  10. May 20, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    ummm…..WP ate my comment !

    [Yeah, I wasn’t able to access the blog for a while. It is up now. -Overlord]

  11. May 20, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    @Ashish: Here you go:

    “Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh are among the States that would go to polls with upgraded EVMs. ”

    According to the same article, about 2 lakh new units have been supplied. That leaves a lot of EVMs to be reused. As I said in my post, “most voting machines are reused”. I didn’t claim that they were all reused.

    I understand the desire for transparency etc. and those who are concerned are free to file RTIs. It is quite easy to take potshots in blog posts, and quite another to be a committed citizen in real life.

    @Confused: In my defense, I didn’t waste much time. There would have been footnotes otherwise! I like conspiracy theories though. The NASA and moon landing one is still going strong. I wonder how long the EVM thing would last (which is another way of saying ‘I wonder when the BJP will come to power again’).

  12. May 20, 2009 at 6:27 pm


    Thats not a valid reply from you.. i have read those links, and they only tell about theoritical procedures..

    You havent answered my question of what if “Naveen Chawla collided with congress, to secretly insert tampered EVM’s”.

    And your claim of reusing EVM’s is not proven.. did any one verified that all the EVM’s are reused or geneuine one from the factory?

    Theoritically, there are numerous laws in our country to stop corruption and crimes.. but does that stop the crimes and corruption from happening?

  13. May 20, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Next, what is your answer for the conspirical win by Chidambaram in sivaganga constituency and T.R. Baalu, and also the unbelievable loss of Vai.ko in virudhunagar?

    Particularly in sivaganga, the ADMK candidate is called to get the certificate, and in between, the recounting is ordered and chidambaram announced as winner? How is that possible, if the EVM’s could not be tampered, or the numbers modified at the last minute?

    Secondly, i could cite you numerous places, where a particular booth is strong hold of a party, but the party not even getting a single vote from there.. what is your answer for that?

  14. sc
    May 20, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    I am not satisfied with the topic posters answers.

    Unless the source code of EVMs is disclosed , we cannot know anything.

    Transparency is required in this regard.

  15. May 20, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    @senthil: Obviously, those links don’t answer every crackpot theory that anyone in the world can come up with. But if you had read them, and applied some thought, you would have realized the scope of the conspiracy theory that you are weaving. If you have read the procedures involved, did it not strike you that such a massive fraud would require complete cooperation and absolute secrecy from thousands of people? Did it not strike you as a bit weird that the same Government that is rather inept at providing basic governance is somehow being assumed to be super efficient at managing such a large-scale covert project in complete secrecy?

    As to reuse: just check my comment right above yours and do some basic algebra (total number of EVMs minus new EVMs).

    As to Chidambaram’s victory: I am not an Election Commission official. Has the decision been contested? If not, why? If yes, what has been the outcome? Was a recount done? Was it done secretly in the absence of agents of other political parties? If no, why didn’t they protest? If yes, what did these agents do if they thought something was fishy? Don’t you know that there is an established procedure for dealing with close contests, and with recounts?

    Instead of asking this stuff on some anonymous blogger’s post, why don’t you be a responsible citizen for once and file a straightforward Rs. 10 Right to Information petition?

    And what the heck do you mean by stronghold of a party? People are supposed to vote in secret. Guess it wasn’t such a stronghold after all. Truth is a bitter pill sometimes.

    @sc: Oh, I am sorry you are not satisfied with my “answers”. Why don’t you take it up with the Election Commission? Takes only Rs. 10.

    In fact, there is an online grievance redress mechanism. It is free. Why don’t you try that? Here you go: http://pgportal.gov.in/

  16. May 20, 2009 at 7:54 pm


    The issue is not about the efficiency of the procedures.. but the possibility of breaking and hacking it..

    I am not claiming that all 7 lakh EVMs are tampered. But, only in selected seats (atleast 50 seats), they have been tampered.

    So, its not difficult for Navin Chawla to place a loyal officer, at the selected constituency to oversee this operation.

    Just because the conspiracy has not exposed, it doesnt mean it has not happened..

    And why it has not exposed can be ascertained from the siva ganga constituency..

    The ADMK candidate kannappan initially protested.. but they were silenced in more than one means.. either by money or by blackmailing or in both..

    COme to the constituency and speak to the ordinary people, what happened in the counting.. and you will get the answer whether there was fraud or not.. but no one is powerful enough to fight against the authority..

    So the issue here is that there are ample evidences to suspect tampering of EVMs.. you cannot quote theoritical procedures to certify that this election is genuine..

  17. May 20, 2009 at 7:57 pm


    On the question of reused EVMs, who others did verify except for the election officials.. what is the surity that the EVM’s are all the old ones, and even if its old one, the surity that the CHIP/software had not been replaced. Please dont claim that the candidate serial number differs from constituency to constituency.. that is a non-issue here.. the replaced chip could have been programmed in lot of ways.

    Please consider the credibility of Navin Chawla before replying.

  18. May 20, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    @senthil: Take your figure of “at least” 50 constituencies. Do you have any idea what kind of number of EVMs we are talking about for that? A total of 834944 polling stations were set up for these elections. Assume one EVM per polling station. Divide by 543 to get the average number of EVMs per constituency. Do you know what this number is? It is more than 1500. So, for 50 constituencies, we are talking about more than 75000 EVMs.

    I know what your next objection will be. Yes, you don’t need to manipulate *all* these EVMs. Let me take that up right now.

    One polling station will typically have about 1500 voters (that’s from CEC’s FAQ). Assume a voter turnout of 70% for these allegedly rigged polling stations. That’s about 1000 votes. Assume that instead of getting 30% votes, the party that rigged them will now get 60% votes in these stations. That’s a difference of about 300 votes. If the party was going to lose the constituency by 10000 votes in an honest election, but has now won by 5000 votes, that means it rigged about 50 EVMs in that constituency. Over 50 constituencies, it would end up rigging about 2500 EVMs. Tweak the numbers some more, and you could perhaps lower this to about 2000 EVMs.

    You don’t need “a loyal officer” of the CEC to manipulate that many EVMs, you need a fanatically devoted army numbering in thousands (there are police personnel, central paramilitary personnel, observers from outside the state, micro-observers, independent videographers, photographers and God knows how many other people who would have to be hoodwinked by this fanatical army of yours).

    Outside of internet portals, you usually don’t get that many fanatics. And with those kind of numbers, there is no hope whatsoever of maintaining secrecy.

    Are you such a huge egomaniac that you think only you and some other internet commentors have thought about these things? Don’t you think that the BJP would have raised this issue and created a hell of a ruckus had there been even a shred of proof or plausibility? Or, do you think that the entire BJP leadership is either completely stupid or has also been bought up by the Congress?

    BTW, the plausibility of “malfunctioning” of EVMs is different from the plausibility of them being deliberately rigged. Don’t mix two different issues. I support the demand for putting the code in public domain, even though I don’t lose sleep over it.

    PS: I am not trying to convince you. I know you can’t be convinced. But arguing for fun also gets tedious after a while with opposition like this. Consider this comment my last word on this fake “issue” and feel free to have the last word in this comment thread, as well as to believe whatever rocks your boat. Keep a printout of my post handy for 2014, you never know when the BJP might win (and then you’ll have to answer the same stupid questions coming from Congress idiots).

  19. May 21, 2009 at 1:54 am

    Overlord.. i too dont want to take this argument further.. But let me tell you.. the sudden manipulation of results happened in sivaganga constituency, for which atleast a 100 people would be witness.. Still the issue hasnt came out, because of two reasons.. 1. the opposition party had been bought out and 2. The media had been bought out..

    99% of people in india dont have idea about what an EVM is and about its internal workings..

    And coming to your 75000 EVMS at 50 constituencies, its very much feasible for a party with CEC like Navin Chawla, to do all these manipulations..
    Just one expert is enough for each constituency to do all these dirty things, after the candidates had been announced.. there are two weeks of time, and also five phases of election so that the number of persons in the core expert group may be still less.. one can easily travel by flight to different locations in the two weeks time..

    There is no need to convince each other.. we are discussing the facts, and i have a strong case to believe that a rigging has happened.. the government which did not order a recount in sivaganga, is not going to take my request for verification of the EVM’s.. and even if i get access, unless i know the architecture of the chip, i cannot verify it correctly..

    So, the best i can argue for is that the next election should be conducted in paper trail.

  20. confused
    May 21, 2009 at 6:14 am

    ”Or, do you think that the entire BJP leadership is either completely stupid or has also been bought up by the Congress?”

    That is not as unreasonable proposition as you think…

  21. dictator1
    May 21, 2009 at 6:23 am

    Ah, the interwebs. The only truly uplifting, steady thing in my life. Never fails in proving my predictions right. If only my experiments got this spirit..

    The only true “Yes, We Can” mentality is found on the interwebs, dont you think? Makes me be all happy about humanity.

  22. May 21, 2009 at 8:48 am

    The sudden manipulation of results happened in sivaganga constituency, for which atleast a 100 people would be witness.. Still the issue hasnt came out,

    You seem to be very well informed about something that hasn’t ‘came out’ (sic). Here is a suggestion: if you have the dope, go to the media about the story. They will lap it up. Now don’t say they have been bought out – the amount of profit thought the attention that a story like this will generate far exceeds anything that money can buy. Besides, there must be people in the media who are anti-Congress.

  23. bzbody
    June 10, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    senthil: the scenarios in sivaganga etc. that you are describing / postulating have nothing to do with EVMs. The same kind of fraud can be carried out with old-fashioned paper ballots.

  24. votecounts
    June 20, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    Why do you need to tamper evm’s? Isn’t tampering 543 counting units enough?
    Isn’t each ballot unit “read” by a counting unit? Can’t the counting unit also be taught to “read” numbers it gets from you? Or even compute new numbers from those you could download?
    What were the numbers in the spreadsheets on the Election Commission Website between 6th and 15th May?
    (see: http://government.wikia.com/wiki/Review_the_2009_Lok_Sabha_Election_Process:_Promises_and_Reality)
    Hmmm- Sounds like a perfect case of making votes count?

  25. July 8, 2009 at 6:13 am

    I agree that the some of the same kind of fraud can be done on papers. And it was done on various ocassions in past also. But its difficult to do that now a days on papers. When EVM shows that the Congress candidate or the slot number got say 600 votes, now no one can challenge that. How would you show the individuals voted for that slot number? Here just we believe that the machine is perfect, it can’t make any mistake or not hacked…. In case of paper every one can see each and every vote and come to the total.

    Also, when world’s top electronic & research company (till now) not able to make their system full proof (Apple – Iphone; Sony PSP, PS3; Nintendo – WII, Nintendo DS) even after spending millions of dollar & using planets TOP talent. How come our Govt owned company made the system full proof? If we are 100% sure our EVM is not hackable then why can’t Indian ovt talk to western country and give them this technology so that they can also use it. India will be rich country by supplying EVMs to USA, Germany or other western country. Why our Govt is silent on it?

  1. May 20, 2009 at 6:50 am
  2. May 20, 2009 at 12:00 pm
  3. May 26, 2009 at 3:49 am
  4. July 4, 2009 at 3:48 pm
  5. September 9, 2009 at 9:42 pm

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