Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Case Against Electronic Voting

There is a lot of debate on the pros and cons of electronic voting. Those promoting the idea point to the fact that we will get results quickly, that the chances of errors are fewer, less cumbersome, cheaper, saves paper etc. But here are some reasons why electronic voting is a terrible idea.

I'm not making a Luddite argument here. The fact that paper voting is centuries old, means that nearly every attack against the process has been thought of and countered. It takes too much effort and too many people to rig at the scale needed to make it feasible in a country as large as India. And whenever you have too many people involved, that conspiracy is bound to break down sooner than later.

With electronic voting, you may not need as many people to do this, If you have access to the machines at the right time, you could replace the software and even the hardware that can steal an election without anyone being any wiser.

Auditing the software

Right now the software that drives the EVMs is closed source. The Election Commission believes that hiding the source code is a way to ensure sanctity of the electoral process. The problem with this is that you and I and most certainly the average voter do not know what goes in the software - whether it is designed to steal a certain percentage of votes - is baked into the software. The counter-arguments to this are: a) that machines are tested on the spot; b) randomized; and c) there is no way to input anything except the ballot button.

The software could be designed in such a manner that the malicious code stays dormant till a certain sequence of votes are cast which instruct the malicious code to activate and start stealing votes for the party in question. For example, let's say there is a five-vote sequence, which goes ADBCB, with the last button in the sequence carrying the instruction to steal votes for button B.

You could write malicious software that lights up correctly, while what gets recorded is something else altogether.

Let's say we make progress from here and the Election Commission decides to open-source the software and everyone goes over it with a fine-toothed comb. Does it solve the problem? Well, not really.

There is no guarantee that the software audited is what has been burned on to the chip that is running the machine. Who created the chip? Was it done by the EC? No. Was it done by a government-owned company? No. Was it done by an Indian company? I honestly don't know the answer to this.

Between the point at which the software gets audited and is sent to the chip factory, did it get changed? Is there an audit trail that guarantees it hasn't been changed? No.

The machine that is in front of you, does it run the same software as the one that was meticulously audited? Did the software/chip get replaced during the maintenance cycle? If your answer is the voter should check the checksum, you now need to trust the software that checks the checksum. And honestly, checksums! That's pretty much beyond 99.99% of the electorate.

The next defence of EVMs is the VVPAT (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail). Except, the EC NEVER plans to count them all. They have arrogantly resisted all suggestions that we do indeed count 100% VVPAT to ensure transparency and voter satisfaction. If everything is hunky dory, what is the EC afraid of? Count everything. Right?

However, there's the possibility of yet another layer of software interference here. The problem with VVPATs is not only the non-counting of the slips. The problem is also that we have no way of verifying if the machine has printed something other than what you voted for.

Now we have two things to worry about. The possibly incorrect electronic record and the possibly incorrect VVPAT slip. There have been reports by various people on the social media site Twitter, including a retired police officer, who have said that the VVPAT slip showed a symbol different from the one they voted for on the EVM.

There is no way to remedy this. People who complain are threatened with jail. There is no provision under Indian laws to do this. But this doesn't prevent the EC from citing incorrect laws to shrug off or suppress complaints.

After all this we have the totaliser machine. Again you have software, with all the same problems as before, that will read bits on the EVM and pronounce the result-whether this count is okay, or not. No one knows, because we don't know how the software behaves inside the black box. So now you have three pieces of software to worry about - the one running the EVM, the one running the VVPAT, and the one running the totaliser machine.

The one thing we must all remember is this - if the stakes are high enough, someone will invest time, energy and resources to win those stakes. And no stakes are higher than to influence the process of who gets to govern India.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Reactions against Rajasthan repealing minimum education rule for civic polls show India’s crisis of democracy

A few days ago, the newly formed Congress Govt in Rajasthan headed by Shri Ashok Gehlot, repealed a rule by the previous Sangh Brotherhood Govt, that prevented people without a secondary education from contesting Panchayat and other elections. A move that should have been drawn universal applause, except from the usual suspects in the Brotherhood’s ecosystem. The Brotherhood and their supporters were predictably up-in-arms about it. What was surprising, however, was that some prominent social media commentators NOT affiliated with the Brotherhood termed this repeal as ‘regressive’.

The Brotherhood is on record, both in word & deed, to reduce democracy. They see it as an inconvenience. They don’t practice it internally, preferring ‘consensus’ to a show of hands. They want to reduce it for the general public at levels as far as possible. One nation one election, minimum education qualifications, imposition of non-native languages in official communications are all attempts to disempower citizens.

The opposition to this move by voices in the non-Sangh quarters is a bit puzzling. Or perhaps not. It shows how far the Brotherhood’s propaganda has seeped into the national psyche. The ideas, that a literate person is educated, or that a matriculation certificate makes you better able to represent your constituents are both false. This is borne out from the fact that the most bigoted supporters of the Sangh Brotherhood come from the well-off sections of society with access to education. Also, by the fact that the clearly demonstrated by the support for demonetisation by a section of ‘the educated’ & ‘the affluent’

One rationale is that segments that attain relative affluence and get a share of power, seek to prevent others from attaining the same. The opposition to RTE is another offshoot of this. This comes from the belief that political power is more-or-less a zero-sum game. Whether this is true or not, I leave it for greater minds to debate, but the fact is more democracy is better than less.

It is only the latest attempt by the privileged to deny the unprivileged a share of power. Using Education to discriminate, instead of the much-reviled tropes of Religion and Caste.
Case-in-point, the minimum education rule excluded (as per the 2011) census, 70% of the rural and 93% of the women ST population of Rajasthan ( A shocking disregard for people’s right to choose leaders of their choice, to say the least.

Incidentally, this debate is not new. During the founding years of our country, no less than Rajaji was on record wanting to deny illiterate people a vote, let alone the right to contest. There were other voices that sought separate electorates basis religion and caste. No less than Dr Ambedkar championed the cause of a separate Dalit electorate. Thankfully, better wisdom prevailed then and we must to strive to understand the basis and uphold those values.

Deepening of democracy

The ever-deepening of democracy should be an ongoing-goal of any democracy. The last major such acts were the 73rd & 74th Amendment to the Indian Constitution which enacted former PM Rajiv Gandhi’s vision to devolve power to the Panchayat and the municipality respectively.
Someone who does not believe in this continual deepening of democracy is not really a democrat. He is using it to seize power before undermining it.

It also reflects poorly on democrats like us that we haven’t been able to communicate the values of democracy, both in letter and spirit. The idea that one-man-one-vote is that defines a modern democracy. Those of us who are taken in by the idea of minimum qualifications must recognise that it is a slippery slope, the next milestone of which is to deny illiterate the right to vote, the next those of a certain religion, caste, gender etc. This is no different from denying people the right to access to a village well.

During the demonetisation disaster, an ‘educated’ CEO lamented “Our problem is that there is too much democracy in India”. Our real problem is that we don’t have enough.

This piece appeared in the Leaflet on January 2 2019

NSFP Ratings

It is time that Netflix launch a new rating scheme NSFP - Not Safe For Parents.  Since Netflix is primarily targeted at the younger set (rea...