India prides itself on being the world's largest democracy. But its elections typically have been raucous affairs, with hundreds killed in fights between rival political parties and chronic allegations of ballot-box stuffing. One common practice in the past was the hijacking of entire polling stations by thugs who stuffed ballot boxes with additional bogus votes of their favorite candidate.
That's all about to change. The weapon: a suitcase-size plastic box. The box holds a battery-operated electronic voting machine, 1 million of which will be in use when India's 680 million eligible voters head for the polls for national elections between Apr. 20 and May 10. Surya Krishnamurty, for one, is pleased with the new system. He is deputy chief electoral officer for the western state of Maharashtra, which encompasses Bombay, and his job is to make sure the vote goes smoothly. "Nothing can go wrong with these machines," he says, proudly slapping the one sitting on his desk. "If the machines are hijacked at gunpoint, the polling booth immediately gets a spare machine, and there's a repoll."
The machines, now being deployed from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, are already winning kudos from Indian public interest groups for their simplicity and ease of use. They will also save time and cut costs. Indeed, the Election Commission hopes the machines will increase voter turnout from 60% to 70%. Each machine has a keyboard on which voters simply push the button adjacent to the name and symbol of the candidate of their choice. With a beep, votes are recorded on a chip in the control unit. In tests using the machines in local elections, voters loved them. "They see it as a sign of development," says Sanjay Kumar, an associate fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
FOILING HACKERS. Some experts in the U.S. question how tamper-proof electronic-voting systems are. But the manufacturers -- Bharat Electronics Ltd. in Bangalore and Electronic Corp. of India in Hyderabad, two state-owned companies -- claim their product is secure. The data can be decoded and printed out only by a court order. Instead of being linked to other computers through a network, the machine is an autonomous device with software embedded in a microprocessor that cannot be reprogrammed, says R. Jagannathan, general manager of Bharat Electronics. "It provides no leverage for hackers."
The Election Commission likes the machines' efficiency. They represent a one-off cost of $200 million, but they will save the government up to 10,000 tons of ballot paper in every national election. A single machine can record 3,840 votes, vs. only 600 per ballot box. Better still, the commission expects to declare the results in 24 hours, compared with the customary wait of three days.
But the transparency of the electronic voting system could work to its disadvantage unless officials like Krishnamurty keep a watchful eye. The machines will show exactly how each village and district voted -- as they did in a local election in Gujarat in December, 2002. Men armed with sticks later swept into one small town and attacked residents for voting against their candidate.
Yet if all goes well, Bharat Electronics and Electronic Corp. could find other markets for their product. The companies have already received inquiries from Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and Singapore. And who knows who else might be interested? In some parts of Britain paper ballots are still being used. And over in the U.S., elec- tronic voting machines would sure solve the problem of those hanging chads.
By Manjeet Kripalani in Bombay