EVMs not foolproof sans paper trail, Chidambaram, Sibal tell SC

The debate over the possibility of tampering with electronic voting machines came up on Thursday in the Supreme Court, which decided to examine the allegations that these machines were not "foolproof" in the absence of a paper trail.

The apex court's decision came on a petition filed by the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which after its drubbing in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election has claimed large scale tampering with EVMs.

A bench of Justices J Chelameswar and Abdul Nazeer issued notices to the Centre and the Election Commission of India (ECI) asking them to respond to the plea challenging the use of EVMs without a paper trail.

"Technically, we agree that any technology can be tampered with, but you have to have sufficient grounds for raising doubts, the court told senior counsel P Chidambaram, who was appearing for the BSP, in an oral observation.

"The EVM itself was introduced to stop malpractices and larger evils like booth capturing and others. This is a work in progress,'' the court said, fixing further hearing of the matter for 8 May.

The matter came up for hearing before the apex court a day after the ECI threw an "open challenge" to political parties and experts to try and hack the EVMs and show that they can be tampered with.

While Chidambaram, a former Union finance minister, claimed that almost every political party has protested against the use of EVMs, senior advocate Kapil Sibal said Congress will also intervene in the matter, adding "every technology can be hacked" and this was a cause of serious concern.

During another exchange, Sibal, who was representing the party, was scolded by the judges for saying only South America used EVMs. He was reminded that the machines were introduced by the Congress. The judges told him: ''Sibal, your party only introduced EVMs. How can you say no other country uses it? EVMs are remedy to booth capturing and other ills."

Sibal replied that technology wasn't invincible, and even the Pentagon can be hacked.

Sibal's submission assumed significance as Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, at a function was yesterday categorical that he had no problem with the EVMs. His colleague and senior Congress leader M Veerappa Moily had in personal remarks also said that going back to the ballot paper would be a regressive step.

While reminding Sibal that the EVMs were introduced when Congress was in power, the top court directed the Centre and ECI to respond to BSP's petition within three weeks after Chidambaram raised doubts over the accuracy of voting through EVMs alone.

"The petition is challenging the use of EVMs in elections without a voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT)," the senior counsel said. He argued that ECI had said they have been asking the government to provide funds for procurement of VVPATs but enough money was not given to it.

"The ECI acknowledges and recognises that EVMs are not foolproof. They want VVPAT and they have recommended to the government and asked for money to procure VVPAT. ECI had sent 10 reminders to the government for release of funds. The letters were sent to the Prime Minister by the Chief Election Commissioner," Chidambaram claimed.

He told the bench that the use of EVMs without VVPAT created serious doubts about the accuracy of voting and a paper trail was needed so that the voter gets a feedback of the vote cast by him.

He said to ensure accuracy in the voting process, paper trail is needed as there were chances of tampering with EVMs as there were reports that both the hardware and software of these machines are "vulnerable".

"There is no way that a voter can verify as to whether the vote cast by him has gone to the right candidate. Without a paper trail, there is no way to verify it. In EVMs, a voter is only pressing the button and he does not know whether the machine is recording his voting correctly or not. There is doubt over it," he said.

To this, the bench asked, "You are having doubts, but on what basis?" Responding to the court's query, Chidambaram said EVM is a machine and "one can make a machine while the other one can tamper with it. There are issues of hacking as well."

Referring to an earlier judgement of the apex court, he said the court had observed that the paper trail with EVMs was an indispensable requirement of fair elections.

The lawyers also told the bench that around three lakh VVPAT attachments were required for the entire country and this could cost around Rs3,000 crore. During the hearing, Chidambaram referred to some of the reports given by experts and said they "demonstrated that both the hardware and software of EVMs are vulnerable and unless there is a paper trail, the accuracy cannot be verified".

At the fag end of the hearing, Sibal told the court that Congress party would also intervene in the matter.

"Nowhere in the world, except in one country, these EVMs are being used," Sibal said, adding, "Every technology can be hacked and that is our concern." To this, the bench said, "Do not tell us that this system is used in only one country. This system was introduced when your party was in power".