Can India Get E-Voting Right?

Last month, I joined millions of other Indians in voting in our national election. Was I wrong to feel disappointed?
Modern democracy in India. Photographer: Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, I joined millions of other Indians in voting in our national election, the biggest in history. Was I wrong to feel disappointed?

After all, the ritual of the vote -- with its emphasis on privacy, silence and secrecy; its underlying political associations of duty, virtue, community, even transcendence -- is the one democratic event that resembles a religious experience. The only difference is that the voter is also, in a manner of speaking, the deity being propitiated, the vote being the offering that establishes his or her agency. So I went to the polling booth, a school in my neighborhood in New Delhi, with great expectations.

On a sheet outside the polling booth was a list of all the candidates I could vote for: seven or eight from the established political parties, then a slew of independents. Inside, I stood in a line before a table, behind which sat some officials from the Election Commission -- a force 11 million strong -- to whom I presented my voter identification card to be checked off against the electoral rolls. This done, I moved on to the next step, which was to have the nail of my left forefinger daubed with a stroke of indelible black ink. (This quaint practice, designed to discourage impersonation or double-voting, has led to the mass posting of what's now called the "election selfie.")

Now things began to get confusing. The polling officer pressed a button on some device before him, and I was directed to a corner of the room, where, facing everybody in the classroom watching me, I stepped up to the touchscreen of an electronic voting machine.

Only a brief glimmer of a small red light and a long beep from the machine confirmed that I had just cast my vote. The experience felt curiously textureless and disconcerting, as if my vote had been swallowed up or garbled more than registered. Anonymity seemed to lapse into unverifiability, secrecy into mystery. All the words that had influenced my choice -- the manifestos of the parties, the reportage in newspapers, the debates and arguments with friends -- culminated in this language-free, ambiguous, momentary beep that went into the memory of some microchip. Collected in some safe house, their data aggregated in a few weeks, these chips will reveal who won the election, at the levels of both constituency and nation.

But couldn't there be many a slip between the ink and the chip? Could the means of vote collection somehow distort the message from the Indian voter? Is e-voting technology, which India adopted wholesale for the 2004 national elections, reliably free of software glitches, viruses, counting errors and political manipulation? What evidence exists to prove that digital democracy is incontrovertibly better than its paper-rich predecessor?

Much of the developed world has already decided there isn't any. There are apparently too many ways of infecting or gaming the e-voting system. Even in the U.S., only 1 in 4 voters cast a ballot on a machine in the last national election. But might the Indian context be different? After all, the countries of Europe, and even the U.S., have much smaller electorates than India's 800 million-plus, and their elections are much smaller, simpler affairs. India's Election Commission, widely acclaimed for its efficiency and impartiality (some voters even feel it should just go ahead and run the government), clearly feels that e-voting supplies many economic and procedural advantages when compared with paper voting.

India is, after all, an electoral landscape teeming with parties and voters (imagine the cost of printing a ballot for every potential voter, then printing all the choices available to that voter on every ballot, then collecting, storing, transporting and counting the 500 million or so ballots gathered), and a physical landscape that requires thousands of polling booths in remote villages and hamlets, where practices like "booth capturing" and ballot-box raiding were common in the past.

Further, the commission is very proud of its indigenously developed, battery-operated electronic voting machine technology, and on the basis of its past record has an almost ideological belief in the superiority of the machines over past technologies. It devotes a long section on its website to this, arguing that, among other things, "there are no invalid votes under the system of voting under EVMs. The importance of this will be better appreciated, if it is remembered that in every General Election, the number of invalid votes is more than the winning margin between the winning candidate and the second candidate, in a number of constituencies. To this extent, the choice of the electorate will be more correctly reflected when EVMs are used." The commission has in the past resisted all attempts by independent observers to show how the machines, too, can be hacked.

Enter the economist and five-time Member of Parliament Subramanian Swamy, Indian democracy's most hyperactive gadfly, most relentless opportunist, most convincing conspiracy theorist and most unusual bigot. If Narendra Modi is, in Salman Rushdie's recent description, "a hard-liner's hard-liner," then Swamy is a maverick's maverick. (Read Samanth Subramanian's survey of his astonishing career here.)

A few years ago, Swamy, now a member of the principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, suddenly began to combine his anti-Muslim stance with an anti-EVM one, although to the best of my knowledge he has never brought these two strands of his thought into one comprehensive thesis. He published almost simultaneously in the right-wing journal the Organiser and the left-wing national newspaper the Hindu widely read and persuasive pieces arguing the electronic voting machines were not tamper-proof, even though the arguments in them were borrowed wholesale from the Newsweek piece they cited. (Swamy is a busy man and must have had other writing commitments to keep up, such as his masterwork "Hindus Under Siege.")

Swamy also asked a court to force Indian election authorities to put in place "a paper record of each vote." If anyone could have seen such a case through, it was Swamy, and future generations of Indians will have occasion to praise his commitment to improving democratic practice: In October 2013, the Supreme Court of India directed the Election Commission and the central government to introduce, in phases, the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail system.

In this modified system, voting continues to be electronic, but the voter receives a printed paper ballot from the electronic voting machine confirming his choice of political representative, giving him something to take away other than a beep and an inky forefinger. Should any kind of election fraud be suspected afterward, there's a second layer of evidence available, and it's that much harder for any sinister political force to pull off what Swamy, whose party is expected to come to power next month, charmingly calls an "e-coup d'etat."

That important judgment didn't leave the Election Commission time to manufacture enough VVPAT machines, so the technology is only available in a few constituencies this time around. But at least one machine has been discovered to be malfunctioning in this election. Perhaps feeling for the underdog, it awarded all the votes cast on it to the Congress party before alert -- or BJP -- voters could point out the malfunction to authorities.

Meanwhile, it looks like the Election Commission will be forced to resort to the defunct ballot-paper system in at least one prominent constituency: Varanasi, the ancient city from which the prime ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi has chosen to contest.

Each electronic voting machine has enough room to display only 16 candidates, and polling rules allow for a maximum of four machines at any one booth, which means the technology can support a maximum of 64 candidates. But the fight against Modi has drawn as many as 77 people (including three other men named Narendra) to file nomination papers in Varanasi, necessitating a probable reversal to an older form of technology.

India's next government, then, will likely be brought into power by digital democracy, with a touch of paper.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.