Electronic Voting in India

By rudd at 10:59 pm on February 3, 2008 | 1 Comment

Given the upcoming elections, it seems like an appropriate time to cover an electronic voting system that is not our own, a system that has a significantly different view on security, usability and design.

Almost 20 years ago India used paper ballots for their nation-wide elections. Like paper ballot systems around the world, it was not without its problems. Voter fraud and violence in polling stations were concerns, as were the sheer mass of ballots that needed to be hand counted during each election. To combat these difficulties, the Indian government decided to slowly roll out electronic voting across the country. Along with the traditional issues of vote integrity and voter privacy, India also had to combat challenges such as limited availability of electricity and armed assaults on polling stations. The result of their e-voting initiative was an amazingly simple, incredibly effective voting system that is still in use today throughout the country.
Voting machine overview:
In Indian polling stations there are a series of in-booth machines all connected to one central “Control Unit” machine, which is administrated by an election official. When a voter walks into the voting booth, they see a simple machine with buttons on one side and the names of politicians on the other. The election official presses a button signaling that a vote can be cast from that booth; the voter can then press the button of their choice. After the button is pressed, a red light will turn on and a loud beep will be omitted, no more votes from that booth will be recorded until the next person steps in. The vote will be recorded on the polling place’s Control Unit.
At the end of election day, all the Control Units are physically transported to a counting facility. Typically votes are tallied within several hours.
Why this is a better system:
-Simplicity. The sole purpose of a voting machine is to record votes accurately and securely. The more complicated layers of software and hardware that are added on top of a voting machine, the more susceptible the machine is to exploitation. Not only in regards to flaws in software or hardware, but also in regards to how those components are produced. An Indian electronic voting machine is simple enough that it can be powered by a 6V battery, whereas a Diebold machine requires the power and hardware to run the entire Windows operating system. An extra bonus of a simple machine is that it costs significantly less than a more complicated machine ($200 for an Indian EVM versus $3000 for a Diebold one).
-The machine that counts the votes is not in the booth with the voter. There is absolutely no reason why the voter needs physical access to the machine where the votes are stored. Indian machines solve this problem having the Control Unit lie under the protection of an election official.
-Simple safeguards to prevent electronic equivalents of “ballot stuffing.” Every voting system has to combat the possibility of ballot stuffing. Indian machines do this by only allowing their EVMs to record a set amount of votes per minute. Because of this, even if a corrupt election official had people vote for the same candidate all day, they would only be able to get a limited number of registered votes counted. This is not the case with either paper ballot systems or Diebold’s system.
-Indian machines are difficult to tamper with. If the control unit is forcefully opened it automatically shuts down. The votes are tallied onto a chip that is hard-wired into the control unit.

While Indian EVMs are not perfect (no paper trail, there have been complaints about tamper-proof they are), the basic idea used in their design is key to creating an effective electronic voting system. When tasked to create an EVM we should ask ourselves to think about simplicity and security, not about designing a Flash Player 9-based UI running on Windows XP to store votes on a USB key.
(Editor’s note: I haven’t been to India and I’ve never used an Indian EVM. If I’ve made any mistakes please feel free to correct me. Also I would love to hear a firsthand opinion of these machines operate)

Filed under: Current Events,Physical Security1 Comment »

1 Comment

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    Comment by Alex Odle

    February 3, 2008 @ 11:35 pm

    From your description it sounds like the voting machines have no way of telling who is actually making a given vote. This seems very odd to me as it seems like a voter would be able to easily make multiple votes. For example, the voter registration official could be either corrupt or incompetent and simply allows given voters to vote more than once. Or, a voter could make votes at several different voting stations. It is great that the machines limit the amount of votes per minute, but some might argue that even just one extra vote is a serious concern.

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