Millions of Indians to put e-voting to test

Indians voting to elect federal and state legislators next month will press buttons on electronic voting machines (EVMs), rather than use the traditional procedure of stamping ballot papers to indicate their preference.

About 675 million voters are expected to exercise their franchise in a four-phase election that starts on Apr. 20 and goes until May 10. This election will be unique as voting in all electoral constituencies will be done through EVMs, according to T.S. Krishnamurthy, India’s chief election commissioner.

In an election run-up that has seen an unprecedented amount of high-tech campaigning by the candidates in the form of flashing Web sites and mobile text messages, it seems fitting that the actual voting will be an almost completely electronic endeavor.

As many as 1.08 million EVMs are to be deployed for these elections, and will provide a secure and reliable mode for voting, Krishnamurthy said.

EVMs were used by the Election Commission of India (EC) on an experimental basis for the first time in 16 constituencies during elections to three state assemblies in 1998. In the upcoming elections, the scale is vastly different as the EVMs are to be deployed in 543 constituencies spread all over the country.

The EVMs have been designed by the EC with headquarters in Delhi, in collaboration with two government-owned companies: Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) in Bangalore and Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL) in Hyderabad. Both companies currently manufacture the EVMs, which cost about US$200 each.

“The interfaces of the EVMs have been designed so that they can be used by people with varying degrees of literacy,” said Narayan Nara Simha, general manager for export manufacture at BEL. The company has been making the EVM since 1989 and by December of last year had delivered 447,000 units to the EC. The company is currently executing another order from the EC for 60,000 more units for delivery this month.

BEL is also looking beyond the Indian market to sell its EVMs. Four undisclosed South East Asian countries are currently evaluating the use of BEL’s EVMs, according to Simha. “We may have to make some changes to meet the requirement of the electoral processes in these countries,” he added.

The front-end of the EVMs resemble traditional ballots with the names and symbols of the candidates. The voter has to press the button alongside the name of the candidate and symbol of their choice, and the vote is recorded.

“In the old system you had many invalid votes because often voters did not stamp the ballot paper at the right place or often stamped the ballot paper more than once, ” Simha said. “If a voter presses more than one button on the EVM, or the same button more than once, only the first entry will get recorded.”

Rural and illiterate people had no difficulty in recording their votes and have in fact welcomed the use of EVMs, according to the EC. The use of EVMs will also cut down on the large number of staff required after the elections to manually sort and count the ballots, EC officials said. Using the EVMs, officials have to only press a ‘Result’ button to get the tally at each polling booth, such as total votes cast and votes polled by each candidate, according to Simha. Because of current procedures, however, the results will not be known immediately after the voting, as the EVMs will be shifted to central locations where constituency-level totals will be arrived at.

The EVM consists of two units — a control unit and a balloting unit — connected by a cable. The control unit is managed by an official at the polling booth, while the balloting unit is placed inside a secluded voting compartment, according to information from the EC. Instead of issuing a ballot paper to the voter, the official in charge of the control unit will press the ballot button that will enable the voter to cast their vote by pressing a blue button on the balloting unit for the candidate and symbol of their choice.

The EVMs are designed for use in a variety of environments. They are portable and run on batteries to make them usable even in areas where there is no regular electric supply. Data is held by the machine even after the power pack is turned off. They run software using erasable programmable read-only memory (EPROMs ) which reduces the risk of tampering with the ballot, according to Simha.

The EVMs are just one component of an election that is getting extremely high-tech. Banned from advertising on television, Indian politicians are planning to exploit the Internet and other communications technologies to get their message to the voters.

The key member in the ruling coalition, the Bharatiya Janata Party plans to use bulk short message service (SMS) on mobile telephony networks and e-mail to get its message across to voters, according to Pramod Mahajan, general secretary of the party. Fixed and mobile telephone users are also likely to receive prerecorded messages from India’s prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The party’s Web site offers visitors screen savers that have the poetically inclined Prime Minister read some of his own poems. On offer for mobile phone users are a variety of ring tones with patriotic songs and poems, and screen savers such as the party’s symbol. Other political parties are expected to also come up with their own versions of electronic politicking soon.

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