Open Letter on the proper implementation of VVPAT-based audit of EVMs

We are a group of former civil servants of the All India and Central Services who have worked for decades with the Central and State Governments during our careers. We wish to make it clear that, as a group, we have no affiliation with any political party but believe in impartiality, neutrality and commitment to the Constitution of India. With our collective experience of conducting and supervising elections from the local body to the parliamentary level, we wish to suggest what needs to be done to make the actual process of voting and counting as free as possible from suspicions of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) malfunction and manipulation.

It is common knowledge that EVMs are ‘black boxes’ in which it is impossible for voters to verify whether their votes have been recorded and counted correctly, and in which miscounts due to EVM malfunction or manipulation are undetectable and unchallengeable. Hence, there is an imperative need for an additional verifiable physical record of every vote cast, in the form of ‘voter verified paper audit trail’ (VVPAT). It allows for a partial or total recount independent of the EVM’s electronic count and helps detect counting mistakes and frauds that would otherwise go undetected. In 2013, the Supreme Court passed an order mandating the use of EVMs with VVPAT units, and the Election Commission of India (ECI) has been deploying VVPAT units in Assembly Elections from 2017 onwards.

If VVPAT is to have any real security or accuracy value, it should form the basis of a proper audit plan. This entails tallying the electronic count as per the EVMs with the manual count as per the VVPAT slips for a ‘statistically significant’ sample size of EVMs chosen at random from a suitably defined ‘population’ of EVMs. Equally important is a clear ‘decision rule’ about what should be done in the event of a ‘defective EVM’ turning up in the sample. A ‘defective EVM’ is one in which the EVM count does not tally with the VVPAT count due to either EVM malfunction or manipulation. But the audit plan that the ECI has followed in recent elections suffers from the following serious shortcomings:

First, the ECI has prescribed a statistically incorrect sample size of just “one polling station (i.e. 1 EVM) per Assembly Constituency” uniformly for all Assembly Constituencies and all States. It has not taken into account the fact that the number of EVMs in an Assembly Constituency varies widely across States from about 20 to about 300, and in a State from 589 (for Sikkim) to 23,672 (for Chhattisgarh which is the median State) to nearly 1,50,000 (for Uttar Pradesh). We are of the view that a uniform sample size for widely varying finite population sizes does not conform to fundamental principles of statistical sampling theory.

Second, the ECI has not made public as to how it arrived at its sample size nor has it specified the population to which this sample size relates. The latter is important because the sample size is dependent upon how the population is defined. If we assume that one percent of the EVMs are defective, the probability that the ECI’s present sample size will fail to detect at least one defective EVM is 99 per cent if ‘EVMs deployed in an Assembly Constituency’ are defined as the population; 94 per cent if ‘EVMs deployed in a Parliamentary Constituency’ are defined as the population; and varies from about 2 per cent (U.P) to 40 per cent (Chhattisgarh) to 71 per cent (Sikkim) if ‘EVMs deployed in a State as a whole’ are defined as the population. Such high margins of error are unacceptable in a democracy.

Third, the ECI has been vague about its ‘decision rule’ in the event of one or more defective EVMs turning up in the chosen sample.

Fourth, the ECI has not been transparent about the results of its VVPAT-based audit of EVMs for the various Assembly Elections held in 2017 and 2018 and the details are not available on its website.

In short, the ECI’s audit plan is unable to detect outcome-altering miscounts due to EVM malfunction or manipulation, which defeats the very purpose of introducing VVPATs. 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.

Our group has been engaged over the past nine months in discussions with the ECI on issues relating to the proper VVPAT-based audit of EVMs. In our letter dated 10th December 2018 to the Chief Election Commissioner, we had sought clarifications from the ECI about certain pointed queries regarding the sample size and the decision rules. We had requested that in the interest of ensuring public confidence and the cooperation of political parties, it would be in the fitness of things if the clear reasons for adoption of a particular sample size and the decision rule for counting of VVPAT paper ballots are placed in the public domain, including on the ECI website. But there has been no action on this front.

The lack of transparency in VVPAT-based audit of EVMs has fuelled various conspiracy theories about ‘mass rigging of EVMs’. There have been unacceptable demands for reversion to paper ballots. But the real issue today is not about “EVMs versus Paper Ballots”; rather it is about “EVMs with perfunctory VVPAT audit versus EVMs with proper VVPAT audit”.

Any electronic equipment is inherently subject to random malfunction. By its own admission, the ECI keeps about 20-25% of EVMs and VVPAT units in reserve to replace those which malfunction on the polling day within a few hours of the commencement of the poll. There is every likelihood that a certain percentage of EVMs may again malfunction randomly during the long interval of 15-30 days between the date of polling and the date of counting. Perhaps this explains the occasionally noticed random discrepancies between the polling station-wise figures of voter turnout and the votes as counted in EVMs. The argument that some Presiding Officers ‘forgot’ to initialise the EVM count to zero at the end of the mock poll demonstration before the regular polling commences does not explain why there are positive as well as negative discrepancies.

As regards EVM manipulation, we wish to state that though it is highly improbable, this low probability can increase significantly with insider collusion. While the ECI has put in place a security protocol and various administrative safeguards that look impressive on paper, vulnerabilities do exist. Large-scale rigging of EVMs may not be possible or necessary because potential attackers need to target only select EVMs to tip the balance in a few marginal, closely fought constituencies. What is worrisome is that without a credible VVPAT-based audit of EVMs, the fraud may be undetectable and may be carried on with impunity.

We, therefore, appeal to the ECI to go in for a statistically correct sample size that can detect at least one defective EVM with 99.9 per cent reliability, in a suitably defined population, by adopting the hypergeometric probability distribution model. In something as important as ensuring the integrity of the election process – a process which in any case takes about 2-3 months from the date of announcement to the date of counting – a delay of a few hours or even a day in the manual counting of VVPAT slips of a larger (statistically correct) sample size of EVMs should not matter at all.

We also appeal to the ECI to adopt the following ‘decision rules’. Full manual counting of VVPAT slips should be done (1) for all the remaining EVMs of the defined population if the sample throws up one or more defective EVMs, (2) for closely contested constituencies where the margin of victory is below 2 per cent of the votes cast or 1000 votes, whichever is less, even if no defective EVM turns up in the sample, and (3) for those polling stations where the discrepancy between the votes polled in EVMs and votes as counted in EVMs is more than 2 per cent.

We request the ECI to implement these suggestions in the Lok Sabha elections due in April-May 2019. Though the counting process may take a little longer, the confidence of the voters and political parties in the electoral process will be reinforced. The ECI has a long and honourable record of holding free and fair elections. It is in the spirit of supporting it in maintaining these high standards that we write this open letter.

1. Salahuddin Ahmad IAS (Retd.) Former Chief Secretary, Rajasthan
2. V.S. Ailawadi IAS (Retd.) Former Vice Chairman, Delhi Development Authority
3. S.P. Ambrose IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Secretary, Ministry of Shipping & Transport, GoI
4. Y.P. Anand IRSE (Retd.) Former Chairman, Railway Board
5. Mohinderpal Aulakh IPS (Retd.) Former Director General of Police (Jails), Govt. of Punjab
6. N. Bala Baskar IAS (Retd.) Former Principal Adviser (Finance), Ministry of External Affairs, GoI
7. Gopalan Balagopal IAS (Retd.) Former Special Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
8. Chandrashekhar Balakrishnan IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Coal, GoI
9. Madhu Bhaduri IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Portugal
10. Meeran C Borwankar IPS (Retd.) Former DGP, Bureau of Police Research and Development, GoI
11. Ravi Budhiraja IAS (Retd.) Former Chairman, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, GoI
12. Sundar Burra IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra
13. R. Chandramohan IAS (Retd.) Former Principal Secretary, Transport and Urban Development, Govt. of NCT of Delhi
14. Kalyani Chaudhuri IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
15. Anna Dani IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra
16. Surjit K. Das IAS (Retd.) Former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Uttarakhand
17. Vibha Puri Das IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, GoI
18. P.R. Dasgupta IAS (Retd.) Former Chairman, Food Corporation of India, GoI
19. Pradeep K. Deb IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Deptt. Of Sports, GoI
20. Keshav Desiraju IAS (Retd.) Former Health Secretary, GoI
21. Arif Ghauri IRS (Retd.) Former Governance Adviser, DFID, Govt. of the United Kingdom (on deputation)
22. Gourisankar Ghosh IAS (Retd.) Former Mission Director, National Drinking Water Mission, GoI
23. Tuktuk Ghosh IAS (Retd.) Former Special Secretary and Financial Adviser, Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, Shipping & Tourism, GoI
24. Meena Gupta IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Ministry of Environment & Forests, GoI
25. Ravi Vira Gupta IAS (Retd.) Former Deputy Governor, Reserve Bank of India
26. Wajahat Habibullah IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, GoI and Chief Information Commissioner
27. Deepa Hari IRS (Resigned)  
28. Vivek Harinarain IAS (Retd.) Govt. of Tamil Nadu
29. Sajjad Hassan IAS (Retd.) Former Commissioner (Planning), Govt. of Manipur
30. Siraj Hussain IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Department of Agriculture, GoI
31. Kamal Jaswal IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Department of Information Technology, GoI
32. Najeeb Jung IAS (Retd.) Former Lieutenant Governor, Delhi
33. Rahul Khullar IAS (Retd.) Former Chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India
34. Brijesh Kumar IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Department of Information Technology, GoI
35. S.K. Lambah IFS (Retd.) Former Special Envoy to the Prime Minister of India
36. Harsh Mander IAS (Retd.) Govt. of Madhya Pradesh
37. Lalit Mathur IAS (Retd.) Former Director General, National Institute of Rural Development, GoI
38. Aditi Mehta IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Rajasthan
39. Shivshankar Menon IFS (Retd.) Former Foreign Secretary and Former National Security Adviser
40. Sonalini Mirchandani IFS (Resigned) GoI
41. Deb Mukharji IFS (Retd.) Former High Commissioner to Bangladesh and former Ambassador to Nepal
42. Pranab S. Mukhopadhyay IAS (Retd.) Former Director, Institute of Port Management, GoI
43. Nagalswamy IA&AS (Retd.) Former Principal Accountant General, Tamil Nadu & Kerala
44. Surendra Nath IAS (Retd.) Former Member, Finance Commission, Govt. of Madhya Pradesh
45. Amitabha Pande IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Inter-State Council, GoI
46. Niranjan Pant IA&AS (Retd.) Former Deputy Comptroller & Auditor General of India
47. Alok Perti IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Ministry of Coal, GoI
48. Sharda Prasad IAS (Retd.) Former Director General (Employment and Training), Ministry of Labour and Employment, GoI
49. T.R. Raghunandan IAS (Retd.) Former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, GoI
50. N.K. Raghupathy IAS (Retd.) Former Chairman, Staff Selection Commission, GoI
51. J.P. Rai IAS (Retd.) Former Director General, National Skills Development Agency, GoI
52. V.P. Raja IAS (Retd.) Former Chairman, Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission
53. C. Babu Rajeev IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, GoI
54. K. Rajivan IAS (Resigned) Former Director, Prime Minister’s Office, GoI
55. M.Y. Rao IAS (Retd.)  
56. Nirupama Menon Rao IFS (Retd.) Former Foreign Secretary, GoI
57. Aruna Roy IAS (Resigned)  
58. Deepak Sanan IAS (Retd.) Former Principal Adviser (AR) to Chief Minister, Govt. of Himachal Pradesh
59. N.C. Saxena IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Planning Commission, GoI
60. Ardhendu Sen IAS (Retd.) Former Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
61. Abhijit Sengupta IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Ministry of Culture, GoI
62. Aftab Seth IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Japan
63. Ashok Kumar Sharma IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Finland and Estonia
64. Navrekha Sharma IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Indonesia
65. Raju Sharma IAS (Retd.) Former Member, Board of Revenue, Govt. of Uttar Pradesh
66. K. Ashok Vardhan Shetty IAS (Retd.) Former Vice Chancellor, Indian Maritime University, GoI
67. Jawhar Sircar

 

IAS (Retd.)

 

Former Secretary, Ministry of Culture, GoI, & former CEO, Prasar Bharati
68. Narendra Sisodia IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Ministry of Finance, GoI
69. Parveen Talha IRS (Retd.) Former Member, Union Public Service Commission
70. Thanksy Thekkekera IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Minorities Development, Govt. of Maharashtra
71. P.S.S. Thomas IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary General, National Human Rights Commission
72. Geetha Thoopal IRAS (Retd.) Former General Manager, Metro Railway, Kolkata
73. Ramani Venkatesan IAS (Retd.) Former Director General, YASHADA, Govt. of Maharashtra

 

 

 

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