Policy Watch No.7

Winning Voter Confidence: Fixing India’s Faulty VVPAT-based Audit of EVMs

As the world’s largest democracy gears up for a season of elections, including the 2019 General Election, there is an urgent need to examine the integrity of the electoral process. Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) are ‘black boxes’ in which it is impossible for voters to verify whether their votes have been recorded correctly, and counting mistakes and frauds are undetectable and unchallengeable.

The ‘voter verified paper audit trail’ (VVPAT) is an additional verifiable record of every vote cast that allows for a partial or total recount independent of the EVM’s electronic count. It is a critical safeguard that can help detect counting mistakes and frauds that would otherwise go undetected. The success of the VVPAT audit, however, depends on a proper, statistically acceptable, and administratively viable sample plan.

The Election Commission of India (ECI)’s prescription of a uniform sample size of just “one polling station (i.e. one EVM) per Assembly Constituency” for all Assembly Constituencies and all States stirs up an avoidable controversy and diminishes voter confidence. The ECI has not made public as to how it arrived at this sample size, and it has also not clearly specified the population to which this sample size relates. The latter is important because in the event of a defective EVM turning up in the sample, the hand counting of VVPAT slips will have to be done for all the remaining EVMs of the specified population.

In this Policy Watch, K. Ashok Vardhan Shetty, a former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, demonstrates that the sample size prescribed by the ECI for VVPAT Audit is a statistical howler that fails to conform to fundamental sampling principles, leading to very high margins of error which are unacceptable in a democracy. By failing to detect outcome-altering miscounts due to EVM malfunction or fraud, it defeats the very purpose of introducing VVPAT. Spending hundreds of crores of rupees on procurement of VVPAT units makes little sense if their utilisation for audit purposes is reduced to an exercise in tokenism.

This Policy Watch suggests statistically correct—and administratively viable—sample sizes to eliminate the risk of electoral fraud and infuse public confidence in the electoral process. It suggests ways in which the ECI can set the controversy at rest and make a beginning with the elections for five States whose counting is scheduled for December 11, 2018.

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