For Americans who care about verified elections, recent events in India are resonant. Verified Voting applauds the advocates, ordinary citizens and technologists who are working for accountable voting in the world’s largest democracy. We support calls for the government of India to 1) engage constructively, rather than persecute, technologists who have conducted critical research on Indian voting systems; and 2) take immediate steps toward a verifiable voting process suited to India’s needs.
A bit of background for Americans who have not yet tuned in to the controversy: India adopted a nationwide system of paperless direct-recording electronic voting machines in 2004. Early on, some Indian computer security experts pointed to the inherent vulnerability of a purely electronic voting process, and a number of journalists and candidates for office raised concerns. The machines in India are much simpler than those used in America, but are no less vulnerable to wholesale attacks originating from the voting system vendor, and are prone to a number of serious machine-by-machine “retail” attacks.
Earlier this year a voting machine of the kind used in actual elections was provided to security experts; the experts’ subsequent analysis showed the machine vulnerable to undetectable manipulation. And, as has happened in the U.S., some officials responsible for administering the machines have dismissed the importance of the disclosed vulnerabilities.
On August 12, U.S. and international computer technologists who attended a panel on India’s voting machines at the 2010 Electronic Voting Technology Workshop/Workshop on Trustworthy Elections (including several members of Verified Voting’s board of directors) signed a letter to the Electoral Commission of India concluding that India’s voting machines do not provide “security, verifiability and transparency adequate for confidence in election results.”
Most troubling, an Indian computer scientist, Dr. Hari Prasad, who obtained the voting machine used in the analysis, has been arrested for not revealing the anonymous source of the voting machine used in the study. (Dr. Alex Halderman of the University of Michigan, a co-author of the security analysis, has more background on Dr. Prasad’s situation and on the security analysis.)
Dr. Prasad’s arrest appears to have only intensified the controversy. On Thursday August 26, leading opposition parties in India’s national parliament called for an all-party meeting on the questions surrounding electronic voting machines.
How this controversy plays out is conjecture, but the essential story – the early, almost under-the-radar concerns about electronic voting, followed by expert public demonstration of the ultimate dangers of e-voting, followed by more widespread outcry – should be familiar to American ears.
With approximately one fourth of the American electorate forced to depend upon direct-recording electronic voting machines with no paper record; with millions more Americans using DRE systems fitted with printer attachments that do not provide as reliable a record of voter intent as voter-marked paper ballots provide; with only half the states conducting post-election audits of any kind; and with the new wave of interest in casting ballots via that great cloud of insecurity, the campaign for verified voting in America is far from won.
Yet though America’s e-voting controversy is far from over, we can say that our debate over voting technology has led to considerable advances toward verified elections. Most U.S. states have rejected paperless voting, and half of the states are conducting software-independent checks on electronic vote counts.
We hope that a similar – though more conclusive – course of events follows in India, concluding in the next several years with implementation of a nationwide, publicly verifiable and recountable voting process for all of India. The vigor of India’s debate offers cause for hope, but as in America, it is not at all clear that transparency will finally win out over “security through obscurity.” The arrest and incarceration of Dr. Prasad, who should be actually be considered a national hero for transparency, is a bad precedent that we hope is reversed. India’s election officials should engage, rather than paint as criminals, experts who are attempting to improve the security of the ballot.
The health of the world’s largest democracy is of concern to every citizen of every nation that holds elections. We watch with concern and we hope for the best as India makes its way through this crisis.