The Election Commission (EC) has decided that in the 12th National Assembly elections, 150 seats will be voted in by Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs).
A day after releasing an official statement about 'not being able to reach a decision on EVM' after dialogue with political parties, the EC decided on the use of EVM in half of the seats during the parliamentary elections.
Except the ruling Awami League, every political party, irrespective of whether they participated in the dialogue or not, was against the use of EVM. The opinions of the opposition on EVM were taken, and then ignored.
Thus, an old debate, seemingly without end, has been reignited.
The Election Commission and the ruling party are arguing that the use of EVM will ensure a free and fair election in 2023. Their argument is essentially that EVM is technologically superior to traditional modes of voting.
Unfortunately, Bangladesh's democratic deadlock and voting system crisis are actually political. Allegations of rigging are made irrespective of whether technology such as EVM have been used or not.
The 2018 national elections - where EVMSs were used only in six constituencies - were marred by allegations of rigging that were never investigated by the Election Commission. In the last city election, a mayoral candidate filed an application in the election court to annul the results of a vote by EVM, once again alleging rigging.
The issue remains unresolved as the Commission failed to provide the court with all EVM-related records, seals, polling cards, audit cards, SD card recordings, log books, information on the EC officials and persons assigned various duties as requested by the court.
Judicial or bureaucratic solutions to political crises do not actually work. Therefore, it begs the question, what is the use of a technical solution like EVM to a political crisis emerging from a lack of trust?
The issue with EVM
Dr. Alex Halderman researched EVMs in the US state of California and found evidence that EVM in the US are not tamper-proof. The use of EVM is banned in more than 22 US states, including the state of California. In addition, EVM is banned in Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, England, France, and Italy.
The global debate on EVM started in 1982 when the first EVM was introduced in India. In a local election in the Indian state of Kerala, Congress leader AC Jose went to the Kerala High Court after losing to N Sivan Pillai of the Communist Party in 50 EVM centres. Later in 1984, after the election was held anew upon the ruling of the Supreme Court, Jose won in those same 50 districts through ballot papers.
Much work has been done in Europe and America to reform voting systems. The EVM system is not used there, and yet voter security and privacy is ensured. This is done by two levels of identification. First, the ballot paper that is issued is subject to the verification of the information bank and the national identity card carried at the polling station, or, in the case of absentee voting, the ticket containing the QR code, is sent to the postal address. Online voting also has multi-layered security protection.
In contrast, in Bangladesh, we have a single layer of identification, after which it is very easy for musclemen of a political party to capture the polling booth. If EVM is in use, all they need to do is press the button for their preferred candidate. Then there is of course the question of whether the technology can be tampered with.
Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Sujan), a non-governmental organisation has pointed out that one weakness of EVM is that there is no voter-verified paper audit trail or verifiable paper record which is attached to the EVM, for example as directed by the Supreme Court of India.
Through a verifiable paper record, it is possible to determine who was voted for and, at the same time, the vote can be recounted if there is a question about the election at the end of the vote count.
With EVM, there are two other serious problems as well. One, not everyone is included in biometric databases. Second, electronic voting machines often cannot identify and match the fingerprints of farmers and other labour-intensive workers, as well as the elderly.
The Election Commission has empowered its officials to overwrite these EVMs, in at least 25% of the cases, in case the machine cannot read fingerprints. That means if the election officer can upload the identity of the voter, if a voter is absent, the election officer can effectively vote on his or her behalf as well.
Except for a few constituencies like Gopalganj or Bogura in Bangladesh, most of the parliamentary constituencies in Bangladesh are effectively contested constituencies. The poll results of the 1991 and 1996 elections show that more than 50 percent of the seats were won or lost by only 10 percent of the total votes cast.
If there is no proper biometric database (recently, the birth registration data of crores of citizens have been lost), if fingerprints of labourers and elderly people do not match; even if there is no other form of fraud, just by officials casting the vote of a certain percentage of absent voters, the full results of an election can be altered.
The EC has provided no technical explanation why EVMs in Bangladesh need to be switched on exactly at eight in the morning and synced, and why earlier synced EVMs do not work.
At exactly four o' clock the machine stops taking votes. If there is a technical error, or the machine hangs, or there is a problem at the local level, there is no explanation as to why the waiting voters in the line have to go back without voting.
Saifur Rahman, senior IT engineer at the Australian Public Service wrote in a local newspaper that it is not difficult to tamper with the voting results by injecting malware into the machine through any input port attached to the EVM.
It is possible to remotely control EVM by secretly connecting a mobile phone, a SIM-like integrated circuit, a hidden device, or a data entry port inside the EVM device, even in the absence of an internet connection.
The EVMs being used in Bangladesh only have a digital audit trail. There is a risk of a breach of privacy. Since the system is also software-driven, the risk of hacking also remains.
Having each EVM motherboard examined by forensic experts just before the election, and saving the digital fingerprint of each software after it, are daunting tasks.
Hardware list, circuit design, hard disk forensic copy, and other necessary information regarding all the machines (about 40 thousand polling stations and lakhs of EVM) are not being shared with all of the major political parties and, anyways, all the major political parties do not have the technical capability to verify them.
Finally there is the question of cost. Each of the EVMs in Bangladesh costs Tk2 lakh. In contrast, an EVM in India currently costs only Rs17,000. There are rental costs, technical management fees, maintenance fees, and expert consultancy fees for keeping EVMs in 64 districts.
In times of ongoing economic crisis and austerity, buying EVM machines for 150 seats is also an unnecessary luxury. Even after all these expenses, a free and fair election does not depend on EVM, but on the election commissioners and field administration officials who will conduct the elections.
Trust in the EC and voting system is more important than EVM. Unfortunately, the truth is that opposition political parties do not trust the EC in this country. Our last two consecutive elections were controversial enough, but now the EC is fueling a new controversy with EVM.
Dr. Rakib Al Hasan is a physician, author, activist & youth leader.
His Twitter handle is @rakibalhasan_bd
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.