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Glitches in the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines (Relevant for GS Prelims, GS Mains Paper II; Polity & governance)

The high incidence of glitches in the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines in by-elections should be a major cause of concern for the Election Commission of India.

Flaws in VVPAT machines
Fresh polling had to be ordered in dozens of booths in Kairana and Bhandara-Gondiya in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, respectively, as a consequence. Ever since the implementation of the VVPAT system last year, machine malfunction and subsequent delays in polling have been recurring issues. Close to 4.2% of the VVPAT machines deployed in the Karnataka Assembly elections this month developed glitches during the testing as well as polling processes. The overall fault rate was as high as 11.6% in the by-elections held in four parliamentary and nine Assembly constituencies on 28th May.

What is the response of ECI?
The ECI has suggested that these machines were more prone to malfunctioning due to their sensitivity to extreme weather conditions and exposure to light. It also blamed the relative inexperience of polling officers handling them, compared to the ballot and control units for the electronic voting machines (EVMs) that have been in use for much longer. The technical committee of the ECI is now faced with a challenge to ensure that the VVPAT machines hold up, with the general election due next year in the hot summer months.

When were VVPAT introduced?

The VVPAT was added to the EVM to audit the voter tallies stored in the machine. Its universal implementation — which began in the Goa Assembly polls in February 2017 — was deemed necessary as many political parties complained about the possible hacking of EVMs. These complaints lacked any basis, but the VVPAT implementation was hastened to bring back trust in the election process. In all elections where it has been used, the VVPAT tallies have matched with the EVM counts, but for a stray case or two when the VVPAT machine was not reset before polling began.

Problems in using VVPAT machines
Inadvertently, the use of these machines, which are adjuncts to the ballot and control units of the EVMs, has added to the complexity of an otherwise simple, single programmable-chip based system, and rendered it prone to more glitches. There is enough empirical evidence to show that EVMs have eased polling and helped increase voter turnout since being put to use. But in using VVPAT machines to reassure sceptics about an election’s integrity, the ECI has introduced a new element, and cost, to the process. Considering these challenges, the ECI should consider deploying the VVPAT machines in a limited, statistically significant, randomly chosen to set of polling booths. This will reduce the possibility of glitches affecting the polling process as well-tested machines could be deployed (with enough replacements also handy) to such booths. The current verification process, after all, only involves the counting of VVPAT slips by randomly choosing one booth from each constituency (or segment), and this check should not be affected drastically by the new method.

What is VVPAT?
The VVPAT system is a new initiative of the Election Commission to ensure free and fair elections. In the VVPAT system, when a voter presses the button for a candidate of his choice in the electronic voting machines (EVM), a paper ballot containing the serial number, name of the candidate and poll symbol will be printed. It is intended as an independent verification system for EVM designed to (i) allow voters to verify that their votes are casted correctly, (ii) detect possible election fraud or malfunction and (iii) Provide a means to audit the stored electronic results.

At present, the EVMs currently display only the total number of votes polled, followed by the votes secured by individual candidates.

(Adapted from The Hindu)

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