The EVM bug bites the EC

img

What lies behind the EC’s sudden predilection for electronic voting?

In the kids zone at this year’s DEFCON, the annual hacking conference held in Las Vegas, the standout attraction turned out to be the DEFCON Voting Machine Hacking Village. Organized by R00tz Asylum, a non-profit organisation that promotes “hacking for good”, its aim was to send out a dire warning: the voting systems that will be used across America for the mid-term vote in November are so insecure “a young child can learn to hack them with just a few minute’s coaching.”

The fallibility of the electronic voting systems in use across the US -  each state is able to come up with its own system, according to its own needs and budget - has been of concern since 2016’s presidential election, and in some cases well before that. Many are said to be relying on poorly secured databases and voting machines running on very old software.

For what it’s worth, the DEFCON organizers said more than 30 children, out of a total of about 50 who tried, were able to successfully hack a variety of replica state election websites provided by the organizers (since it would be illegal to have a go at the real ones) to change the results displayed there by manipulating party names, candidate names and vote count totals. One 11-year-old boy was able to crack Florida’s in under 10 minutes.

“These are very accurate replicas of all of the sites,” said Nico Sell, the co-founder of Rootz Asylum, in an interview to PBS NewsHour. “These things should not be easy enough for an 8-year-old kid to hack within 30 minutes, it’s negligent for us as a society.”

More serious evidence on the vulnerabilities, and indeed the alleged exploitation of the vulnerabilities in the electronic voting machines in use in the US, can be found in the work of two Ohio-based journalists, Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wesserman, who have documented such cases in 7 books since 1988. Their biggest, most serious allegation concerns the 2004 presidential election, which they say was “stolen” from John Kerry by manipulating the results of the vote in Ohio, the Midwest state whose 18 votes in the Electoral College decided the presidential race that year. Messrs. Fitrakis and Wesserman were vindicated over much of what they documented in their book “What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election”, when the state’s top election official launched an investigation that concluded the voting systems that decided the 2004 presidential election in Ohio were rife with “critical security failures.”

Although over 80 percent of the votes in the 2016 US presidential election were cast using some form of electronic voting system, what is clear is that even in the most advanced democracy, or at least its most ardent champion in today’s world, electronic voting systems have only served to breed uncertainty and controversy around elections, instead of fairness and transparency.

Other notable cases include the Netherlands and Germany, two advanced democracies of Western Europe that experimented with electronic voting (and counting of course, which is implicit) but then decided to discontinue. In the Dutch case, a pressure group called “We Don’t Trust Voting Computers” demonstrated security flaws in voting machines. After an enquiry committee’s report to Parliament, the regulation for electronic voting was withdrawn in 2007.

A German court on the other hand, banned the use of EVMs in a 2009 ruling. The ruling was interpreted to mean that the court concluded that a computer-based system of voting required knowledge of programming that citizens did not have and, hence, the system was ‘opaque’. This defeated the constitutional requirement of public examinability of all essential steps in an election.

‘Vorsprung durch Technik’

Against this background, it was revealed in the last one week that the Bangladesh Election Commission has commenced preparations to use electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the national elections scheduled to be held in December. Understandably, the revelation alongside some other unsavoury information that came to light concerning the procurement process for EVMs being pursued by the EC, has given rise to controversy and criticism.

“We plan to use EVMs in the elections if all parties agree,” EC secretary Helaluddin Ahmed told newsmen after a meeting at the commission on August 29. The six-hour meeting at the Nirbachan Bhaban deliberated necessary amendments to the Representation of the People’s Order, the relevant section of the Constitution stipulating election law.

Following another meeting just two days later, a proposal containing the EC’s suggested amendments was sent to the Law Ministry for vetting. After that, subject to the cabinet’s approval, parliament would vote and have the final say on whether or not the country adopts electronic voting.

Even within the EC, there is deep division over the use of EVMs, sources said. Some of the commissioners believe it is not the right time to plan the use of EVMs in the national elections. Moving for them at this late stage would only open the door further to controversy, they are said to believe. Besides, there is a lack of consensus among the political parties regarding such a fundamental and monumental shift, the commissioners recognise.

In fact one of the commissioners, giving vent to his opposition to the move, walked out of the meeting in which it was decided to go ahead with the proposal to amend the RPO. Mahbub Talukdar is known to be the only member of the EC recommended by an opposition party. The other four were all very cleverly inserted through their nominations being submitted not by AL, but by its coalition partners, some of whom confessed to doing as the AL directed during the nomination process. 

“I believe the EVM can be used gradually in the local election but I do not support the initiative to amend the RPO to use the EVMs in the 11th national election. I am issuing the note of dissent to differ with the decision of the commission,” Mahbub Talukdar wrote, in a note of dissent issued after walking out of the meeting. He cited ‘the existing political conflict’ and ‘lack of skilled manpower’ as the reasons for his objection.

Talukdar has issued ‘notes of dissent’ on at least three occasions since the present five-member commission led by KM Nurul Huda took over in February last year.

Nevertheless, the EC has hurriedly undertaken a most shady project to buy some 150,000 EVMs at an estimated cost of Tk 38.29 billion. Despite the impasse, the Trust Bank got a special permission from the Bangladesh Bank to open a letter of credit (L/C) for procurement of the EVMs. Official documents that are publicly available say the Bangladesh Machine Tools Factory would be contracted by the EC to buy the machines and other machineries from China, Hong Kong and other countries. Till date, L/Cs worth over Tk 7 billion have been opened. Around Tk 26.96 billion would be spent to buy the machines. All this even before a feasibility or viability study has been carried out into the proposed project, according to the Planning Ministry.

EC sources said it is estimated that there will be around 220,000 voting booths for 300 constituencies in the 11th parliamentary election. This will require 264,000 EVMs (including an additional one in each voting centre) for use in all the constituencies. And 132,000 EVMs will be required if installed in half of the constituencies. Sources at the EC have since revealed the plan is to use them in 100 constituencies, a third of the total.

Rafiqul Islam,one of the present commissioners, in comments to the media said that even if the EVMs are purchased, it is far from certain that they would be used in the upcoming election. There are question marks over the EC officials’ capacity to use the machines, let alone ordinary voters. There is also the matter of the political parties’ acceptance of the machines, he added.

To say the EC has no experience in large scale use of EVMs would be a grand understatement. Even in the recent spate of municipal elections, it ran its pilots on a very small scale. The highest was in Barisal, where only 11 centres (out of 123) used them. The EC earlier had decided to use EVMs in all the centres of a municipal election, but in this it has failed miserably. How then does it propose to do so in a parliamentary election for a full 100 constituencies?  It is blatantly obvious that the EC at present has nowhere near the skilled manpower to use EVMs on a wider scale in the national elections.

There is lack of transparency also over the results of the EC’s pilot, which started under the commission led by ATM Shamsul Huda (2008-2013) who first introduced the use of EVMs in the country. In fact the EC had to face problems in using EVMs at some centres during the five city corporation elections. Some 36 officials imparted training for two days to polling agents for taking votes in EVMs system. Besides, 99 officials were assigned to create awareness about the use of EVMs. Three technical officials were kept standby in each polling station. Still, there were problems due to technical glitches. Many voters did not feel comfortable using these.

Prior to the latest developments, the only notable voice in favour of EVMs was the ruling party Awami League. AL presidium member Faruk Khan said the EVMs are used in developed countries. The elections are held in a fair way and the results are announced quickly. If a decision is taken to use EVMs in the next election, AL will welcome it, Faruk said to Prothom Alo.

Even so, CEC KM Nurul Huda was previously quite forthright in asserting the commission has no preparations to use EVMs in the 11th parliamentary elections. Unless all the parties came out in support, the EC would not look to use it, was his overall position. For example on 8 April, the CEC had said the EC has no preparations to use EVMs in the national elections. On 7 June, while inaugurating the distribution of Smart National ID cards at Baufal in Patuakhali, he said EVMs would only be used in the elections if all parties and voters consented to it.

His master’s voice

We may recall the the EC sat with 39 political parties over the course of last year to seek their suggestions regarding a number of issues, including use of EVM. Twenty three of those parties expressed their views on EVM, with 12, including BNP, opting against it. The ruling Awami League was one of seven parties who wanted the EVM while three wanted partial use and one suggested using it provided some conditions are met.

Compare that to the EC’s response to what the parties opined on the issue of army deployment during the polls, where a majority of the parties spoke in favour of it, yet the suggestion was dismissed out of hand.

In this day and age it would seem almost naive to suggest a machine could be ‘unhackable’. But as far as the claim is forwarded for the overall EVM system, it may well be so. Obviously the fact that they are not connected to the internet helps. Individual units however, may well be vulnerable to breaches in terms of security. And so the system by its very nature breeds an uncertainty that is never going to be healthy for electoral processes. And there are other philosophical arguments involved that make it patently unadvisable. When the vast majority of democracies around the world appear happy to carry on with the manual process, what flaw has the EC detected in the system that compels this move for a technological solution? 

India’s gradual move to EVM, now nearing completion after almost 35 years of work, solves a problem of scale that is unique to them. For many years now, the country has recognized the imperfection of being forced to spread out their elections, at both the state and nationwide levels. It flows directly from the improbable number it looks to fit inside its great democratic project, to facilitate the aspirations of no less than 1.3 billion people. The only other country with a comparable count of citizens of course is China, who happily don’t have to bother with democracy’s bottlenecks.

In any case India for a long time has recognized the need to get around this issue over time, with politicians from across the aisle committing to the need to provide Indians with the opportunity for ‘1 nation, 1 election’ - the movement in favour of holding parliamentary elections across the country on the same day. Obviously the biggest obstacle to this under the old voting and counting method is the counting process, and evidently the biggest advantage of all for EVMs over the manual counting process is the time you get to save. An EVM would take within an hour to run some of its mechanical processes before issuing a result, for numbers that may take days to count by hand.

The system they have finally settled on (unlike the US, Indian states will use one uniform system stipulated by the central government) is what is known as EVMs with voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) system. A VVPAT is intended as an independent verification system for voting machines designed to allow voters to verify that their vote was cast correctly, to detect possible election fraud or malfunction, and to provide a means to audit the stored electronic results.

In Bangladesh’s case, the EC has divulged nothing as to what sort of system they would like to move to. Not enough information has been revealed about the system being piloted even. Everything surrounding the move reeks of incompetence and insincerity on the part of the Election Commission. And that can never be healthy for any election.

  • Courier Briefing
  • The EVM bug bites the EC
  • Issue 9
  • Cover Story
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

Leave a Comment