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Pressing Buttons…Casting Votes!

With national parliamentary election lying ahead by yearend, much debate has been going on about the security and effectiveness of using electronic voting machine (EVM).

So far the election commission (EC) has successfully used the EVM machine developed by the Institute of Information and Communication Technology (IICT) of BUET on a limited scale in polls to city corporations of Chittagong and Narayanganj and on larger scale in Comilla in 2014.

The fresh debate on the use of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) in the upcoming election has emerged with the Election Commission, as reported, opting to buy 2,535 new Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs).

The purchase of such machines comes months before the elections to be held sometime in December. The Bangladesh Election Commission had earlier said that they did not think of using EVM in the next elections.

During the last round of dialogue with political, the ruling AL made it known to the EC their preference for EVMs. The BNP had stated its position against the use of such machines terming their efficacy in fair elections controversial.

Against such backdrop, Fintech had a talk with Prof Dr SM Lutful Kabir, former dierctor of the IICT whose brainchild was the EVM machine.

Terming electronic voting machine (EVM) as a more secured voting medium than that of manual one, Dr Kabir  said the EVM model that the IICT had developed and the EC has adopted has no ‘extra risk’ other than the ones prevailing in a manual voting system.

By ‘extra risk’, he meant to say that the intentional malpractice by the presiding officer during an ongoing election or the forced invasion of polling center by party cadres. In those cases certain micro-chips could be used to alter the EVM program and particular number of votes could be tampered against an electoral symbol.

‘But there is ‘no risk’ of remote vote tampering as the EVM isn’t interconnected with each other or a central server’, he said.

How the EVM machine works?

Referencing the IICT design documents, he said, each EVM has a smart card and the machine will be functional only if the particular smart card is installed. Smart card is supplied by the EC to the assistant presiding officers of a polling center.

EVM has two units, namely control unit and ballot unit. The units are connected with each other by wire. The control unit is placed in front of the assistant presiding officer while the ballot unit is placed inside the voting booth.

Control unit has a digital display and several switches namely- ‘ballot’, ‘start’, ‘close’, ‘memory clear’, ‘demo result’ and ‘final result’.

‘Start’ switch is used to initiate the voting process. If an experimental vote is being stored in the machine memory that ‘start’ switch will not work until that vote is deleted by using ‘memory clear’ switch. Once the ‘start’ switch is pressed, no experimental vote could be placed and the ‘memory clear’ switch becomes dysfunctional.

The ‘demo result’ switch, used to see the result of experimental voting, also becomes dysfunctional with the pressing of ‘start’.

By pressing ‘ballot’ switch, an assistant presiding officer start the ballot unit and send a voter to the booth to cast a vote. As soon as the single vote is placed the ballot unit becomes dysfunctional until the next pressing of the ‘ballot’ switch.

The ‘close’ switch is used to stop the whole voting process of a polling center permanently. If there is any attack in the polling center this switch could be pressed to stop the voting. Once this switch is pressed, the EVM in that particular center could only be used for seeing the voting result by pressing the ‘final result’ switch.

Ballot unit has display comprised of all electoral symbols with a particular switch against the symbol. A voter could cast a vote only if the green light at the upper portion of the ballot machine is on. The green light could be on only if the assistant presiding officer presses the ‘ballot’ switch from the control unit.

A voter could only press a switch against an electoral symbol once. Once the switch is pressed, the vote is being given and it will be displayed at the control unit display and will be stored in the memory chip. Also when a vote is given, the red light at the lower portion of the EVM will lit up. After that it doesn’t matter if a voter press the switch again for several times as no more votes will be considered.

Also if a voter pressed several electoral symbols switches at a time then the voter would heard a ‘bip-bip’ sound which means, the vote hasn’t been placed. The voter then can re-press only one switch to place the vote.

Each ballot unit has places for accommodating 12 electoral symbols, so if the number of candidate is more than that, then more ballot units could be added. Each machine is run on 12 volt so there is no risk of current shock. Also the battery power stays for 12 hours which make the machine not vulnerable to load-shedding.

Is the EVM machine more secured?

Explaining the EVM security measures, Prof Kabir said that the ballot unit of the EVM becomes dysfunctional for 10 seconds once a vote is placed.

So if there is some contract between the assistant presiding officer and the voter for vote tampering, the malpractice wouldn’t work because once a vote is placed, the display at the control unit shows the casting of vote and the ballot unit couldn’t be started within the next 10 seconds, by the time the voter has to get out from the booth in presence of the polling agents, Dr Kabir said.

Also in the situation of an attack of the party cadres in a polling center, the voting process could be stopped by pressing the ‘close’ switch. Also if the smart card is removed from the EVM, the machine will not work, he added.

‘Suppose, an assistant presiding officer helps the party cadre to cast a vote but still the vote has to be placed by pressing electoral symbol switch at the ballot unit and this process will take lots of time. (Per minute only five votes can be placed)’, he said.

‘So the situation is much more secured than the manual one where the polling center could be invaded and the ballot box could be easily replaced to alter the election results’, he said.

Prof Kabir also said that each EVM has a program installed which function as per the election rules. ‘The program will be installed in the EVM at the time of election only after an expert panel verifies it. Once the program is installed it can’t be changed, so there is no risk of vote tampering at the field level’, IICT director said.

But he admits that no electronic system in the world is ‘totally secured’. The smart card supplied to the assistant presiding officer could be made and the fake card could alter the result in the EVM. ‘But in that case the password with the smart card need to be hacked which is technically very hard’, he added.

Also if a center is invaded, then certain microchip could be installed in the EVM which could alter the pre-installed program and change the election result, he said.

‘But these are all the possibilities that prevail in a manual voting system. And the security measures that are taken in the EVM is much more secured than that of the manual one’, he said.

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