NEW DELHI — Thanks to a device that is the size and shape of a mini piano keyboard, India can boast that the country’s voters, all 814.5 million of them in 543 constituencies, can cast their ballot electronically, even in areas that have just one person.
The 1.8 million electronic voting machines being used in this year’s elections, manufactured by Bharat Electronics and Electronic Corporation of India, both government companies, have been designed to adapt to the logistical challenges in India, where roads can be nonexistent and the electricity supply erratic. The machines are small enough to carry by hand and require only a six-volt alkaline battery. With one-third of India’s adult population illiterate, the voting machines feature both a list of candidates’ names and their party symbol.
“The introduction of electronic voting machine was India’s biggest electoral reform,” said Manohar Singh Gill, India’s former chief election commissioner who supervised the 1999 election, the last one that used paper ballots. “The biggest disputes in paper ballots used to be on which vote is invalid and which is not. Recounting used to take days, and more disputes would emerge.”
In eliminating the need for paper ballots, India not only reduced the number of invalidated ballots to 0.05 percent from 1.91 percent in 1999, but it also saved hundreds of thousands of trees.
Navin Chawla, a former chief election commissioner who supervised the 2009 general elections, said that according to one estimate, if the current election were to use paper ballots, India would have needed to cut down 282,240 trees. In 1999, he said, the general election used 7,700 metric tons of paper.
This year is the third national election in which all voting is conducted electronically, but the use of the machines in India dates to 1982 in the southern state of Kerala. However, an Indian court ruled then that the machines were illegal because the law at the time allowed only paper ballots. Parliament changed the law in 1989.
From 1982 until 2004, the Election Commission made efforts among political parties to come to a consensus about electronic voting, but the parties raised concerns that the machines could be compromised.
In 1989-90, the Election Commission spent 750 million rupees, or $12.5 million at current rates, buying more than 100,000 electronic voting machines, but they remained unused for several years. In the late 1990s, India’s comptroller and auditor general asked the commission why the money was spent on voting machines if they weren’t being used, which spurred the commission to put them to use.
In 1998, electronic voting machines were used in state elections successfully, but their use was again challenged in court, this time by Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, but the court set aside the objections.
“Political parties wanted to maintain status quo with paper ballot. The use of EVMs eliminated possibilities of rigging the poll,” said Mr. Gill, referring to electronic voting machines.
In 1999, the national elections saw electronic voting machines in 46 constituencies, spread over 17 states and involving 60 million voters. After that, all state elections were conducted electronically, and the 2004 vote became the first national election to eliminate the use of paper ballots.
The device comes with two components, a ballot unit and a control unit, connected to each other through a cable. (The Election Commission’s detailed training manual for the machines is here.) Each ballot unit can record 3,840 votes for each of the 16 candidates. If there are more than 16 candidates in a constituency, then up to four ballot units can be connected to accommodate up to 64 candidates.
The control unit remains with the presiding officer of the polling station at all times. The ballot machine can be used only after the presiding officer presses the control button. After the voter presses the button next to the symbol or name of the preferred candidate, it emits a long beep.
Only five voters can cast their vote in one minute. After the polling station is closed, all voting machines are stored at a secure place.
On the day the votes are counted, which is May 16 for this year’s elections, all the electronic voting machines in a constituency are opened in an auditorium, with the parties’ agents acting as witnesses. With the push of a button inside the unit, each unit can instantly list the number of votes each candidate received. The vote tally for each unit is recorded on paper in front of the parties’ agents, then added up at the end.
The electronic voting machines allow all of the votes in India to be counted in one day instead of the several days that were needed when paper ballots were used.
“To be able to count 450 million votes accurately in a few hours’ time is amazing by any standard,” said Mr. Chawla, the former chief election commissioner, recalling his experience in the 2009 elections..
Now that the vote count is electronic, ballot-box stuffing is no longer possible — in which hired henchmen from a particular party would take control of a ballot box and literally stuff ballots into it.
But voting fraud still occurs in other ways, with party workers either surrounding a polling booth to intimidate voters or the party workers themselves taking control of a booth and repeatedly pressing the button for a candidate. However, S.Y. Quraishi, a former chief election commissioner of India, said the clock built into the voting machines can note when a vote is being entered repeatedly too rapidly.
In 2010, Hari Prasad, who led a team of security researchers, put out a report on the vulnerabilities of the electronic voting machines that could be exploited to commit voter fraud. The Election Commission ran a number of tests but found no evidence of vulnerabilities, but it agreed to have an expert committee look into the possibility of adding a paper receipt for the machines.
Last year, after a petition was filed by a politician, Subramanian Swamy, India’s Supreme Court directed the Election Commission to gradually introduce a paper record with the electronic vote, starting in 2014. This will be an extra machine attached to the electronic voter machines that provides a paper receipt after the vote is cast. This receipt can be kept as a record of any particular vote.