‘Decision to use EVMs defies all logic’

Badiul Alam Majumdar FILE PHOTO: STAR

Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Shujan), talks about the controversy surrounding the Election Commission's decision to use EVMs, despite widespread opposition to the idea, in an interview with Mohiuddin Alamgir of The Daily Star.

The Election Commission (EC) has decided to use electronic voting machines (EVMs) at 150 constituencies out of the 300 in the next general election, ignoring the BNP and several other political parties' objection to EVM use. The EC has also decided to purchase 200,000 new EVMs. What are your thoughts on this?

This decision defies all logic. Spending about Tk 9,000 crore is illogical when the country is going through an economic crisis, and when we are trying to get a loan of around USD 7 billion. Many people and political parties are protesting the decision as well. What is particularly concerning is that they are going to spend money on technologically flawed machines. It is possible to manipulate the election results through the EVMs. The machine has no Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT), a system that dispenses a slip with the symbol of the party for which an individual has voted. Late Dr Jamilur Reza Choudhury, who was appointed as the chief of the technical advisory committee on EVMs, protested the move of buying them as they don't have VVPAT. In India, VVPAT has been added to EVMs following a court order.

There is no scope for a vote recount if an election is held using these EVMs. The people will have to accept whatever the EC announces as the final result. Biometric-based EVMs, in many cases, cannot identify fingerprints of elderly voters, or if one's fingers get damaged because of their work patterns. The presiding officer and assistant presiding officer have overriding power in case a voter's fingerprint does not match with the data stored in the server.

According to a BBC report, in the last election, in as many as 25 percent of the cases, presiding officers and assistant presiding officers employed their overriding power. It was reported that these election officials were partisan, and were appointed only after being verified by police. As they have the power to open a machine, they can even cast votes when voters are absent. How much of this overriding power was used? Who will oversee that, and where is the transparency? Even 5-10 percent cases of officials employing this overriding capacity can be a determining factor in the election results.

The EC often claims that no one can prove the EVMs are not secure.

That is incorrect. If you provide us with an EVM machine and the proprietary source code, we will be able to prove how the manipulation is possible.

But will a manufacturer share the proprietary source code with others?

Indeed, a manufacturer will not share the proprietary source code with others. But how else will we prove that vote manipulation is possible through EVMs? Take Germany's case for an example. A German court in its judgment on EVMs said that the principle of the public nature of elections, as per Germany's Basic Law, requires that all essential steps in the elections be subject to public examinability, unless other constitutional interests justify an exception. The court said that the proceedings for the examination of the type sample by the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt – the national metrology institute of Germany – and approval by the Ministry of the Interior should be public as part of election preparations. Any interest of the manufacturer in protecting its business secrets should be subordinate to the principle of democracy. In order to check the devices independently, disclosure of the control documents, reports of Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt, and of the source code of the EVM software is the only way to be able to judge the integrity of the elections. Not disclosing this information is said to constitute an electoral error.

So, without the source code, we cannot prove that manipulation of the machines is possible.

The BNP has been saying that they will not take part in the next general election. The EC is saying that they cannot and will not compel any party to join the polls. Can the commission make such a statement?

We don't want just a participatory election; we want a competitive, free, fair, and credible election. The EC is an independent constitutional body, and its responsibility is to hold free and fair elections. When a large political party or several parties refrain from participating in elections, it cannot be called a proper election. Elections mean choosing between alternatives. The EC cannot get away by saying that they wouldn't compel anyone to join the polls. The EC has enormous power, according to Mahmudul Islam's book Constitutional Law of Bangladesh; they have the inherent power to ensure a free and fair election. In the face of a boycott, the EC must tell the ruling party and others that it cannot meet its constitutional obligation to hold a participatory election.

The EC cannot ensure free and fair elections by itself if the law enforcement agencies and the administration are partisan, and the ruling party acts aggressively. But they have the power to prevent rigged elections, provide remedies and cancel the elections after probes when needed.

Do you think the EC's decision to use EVMs will affect the opposition parties' as well as the people's confidence in them?

Yes, considering how the commission is adamant to use EVMs in the election despite such clear objection from several parties. They have been making contradictory statements, too. The CEC once said political parties' stance was not considered when the decision to use EVMs was made. Later, they said the majority of political parties were in favour of using EVMs. Then media reports revealed the commission had misrepresented or changed what some of the parties had said about EVM use – they had set some conditions for it, but the commission said they had agreed to the idea.

In doing so, the EC sent out the message that they would use the EVMs in the election no matter what, because the ruling party and its alliance partners were in favour of it. This proves that the commission is biased towards one party. Naturally, the opposing parties as well as the people would not trust this commission.

Even though some political parties, including the BNP, are in favour of a poll-time government for a participatory and credible election, the EC has not yet recommended this in their working plan for the next election, saying it does not fall under their jurisdiction.

We think the issue of caretaker government does fall under the EC's jurisdiction, as their mandate is to hold free, fair, and credible elections. Again, regarding the caretaker government, the EC can tell the government that they cannot meet their constitutional obligation to hold free, fair and credible elections without it, because that would not be consistent with the constitution.

Members of the opposition parties are facing police attacks whenever they try to hold a rally or a meeting. Do you think such attacks would further widen the existing political division between the opposition and the ruling party?

It is not just about the widening of political division. This would create the scope for an election full of fraudulence as well. The current events may lead to members of the opposition parties facing police cases. And such cases will keep them on the run. They were on the run during the 2018 election and such a situation may happen again. The opposition will be harassed using such cases, and they will not be able to stay in or visit their localities, so it will be difficult for them to participate in the election in its true sense.

There is also the Digital Security Act (DSA), and the government is trying to enact some more black laws, which may become obstacles for a conducive election atmosphere. In our country, the government is not being formed based on people's will; as a result, there are no accountability measures in place. If you go to people seeking votes, you have to be accountable to them as you will need to go to them again to seek votes in five years.

How would you evaluate the EC's performance thus far?

They have announced a roadmap for the next election, but I think it is aimed nowhere. I would say it is a roadmap for a failed election. They may end up holding an election haphazardly. If they do hold the election in such a manner and fail to meet their constitutional obligations, someday they will be held responsible and may have to answer for their failure.