How can elections be “hacked” and what’s happening in India

Elections do not make a democracy. But successful execution of free and fair elections is a key component of democracies.

There are four major ways to “hack” an election, David Karpf, a professor at George Washington University, explained in the WIRED.

Voter suppression isn’t just negative messages that depress turnout. It is active, structural work that creates barriers to voting — kicking voters off the rolls, closing polling locations, implementing poll taxes, and so on.

Democracies cease to function when citizens stop trusting that elections are free and fair. That’s why each and every point stated above is important, even though all are not equally dangerous.

India: Karpf’s piece was centered around American politics. But India is witnessing similar challenges. The Election Commission of India (ECI) is one of the most trusted public institutions in the country and has “significant powers, far greater than what its counterparts in many democracies have at their disposal.” But of late, the ECI has been drowned in multiple controversies. Two stories to note from this week.

First, allegations of voter deletionhave surfaced owing to linkage of Aadhaar numbers with voter roll database.

So what’s the debate? In brief, this Aadhaar-Voter rolls linking process can lead to legit names being struck off the voter list. It is important to remove fraudulent people from electoral rolls, but at the same time, officials need to ensure that no genuine people are denied the right to vote because of procedural errors.

The problem highlighted directly corresponds with “voter suppression” issue that I had discussed above: it is possible that those in power can strike off supporters of their opponents for electoral gains.

It is not clear whether any such thing is happening. But we can’t deny the possibility either. The problem is that officials are not sharing enough information to put to rest the questions being raised.

Here are the details:

How many voter IDs have been linked with Aadhaar? ECI won’t tell us: In an RTI reply to Medianama, the ECI has refused to disclose how many voter IDs have been linked with Aadhaar, claiming it doesn’t know. As of March 2018, 32 crore voter IDs were linked with Aadhaar. Moreover, in press conferences, ECI officials are refusing to get drawn into the specifics of the linking process. This raises an obvious question:Why is the EC not sharing this information pro-actively?

Are the deletions legit? In Telangana, 2.2 million voters were removed from electoral rolls since the 2014 elections.

“This large-scale number of deletions is very unusual and the Election Commission must explain this,” said Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu, an RTI campaigner. “Across the country the number of voters goes up every elections, given that India’s population goes up every year. Even if it has been done going by the rule book, those whose names have been deleted must be informed,” said the campaigner, who also runs the public information portal * (Mint)*

Let’s take both sides of the argument:

What past experience tells us: This voter seeding process (linking voter rolls with Aadhaar numbers) is like seeding Aadhaar numbers with ration-card. It is a bulk, probabilistic process.

Now there is enough evidence to show that the ration card verification exercise had significant, measurable drawbacks. Activists had highlighted how genuine beneficiaries were removed in the guise of weeding out “duplicates”.

In interviews with HuffPost India, officers involved in the [voter ID-Aadhaar linking] exercise recalled several instances where names were recommended for deletion because residents were not at home when the verification officer visited.

“The problem with inorganic seeding is that if you have wrong data about an individual, and you use that information, you will cause harm to the individual,” said Srinivas Kodali, a cyber security researcher. “The individual has no idea that this data has been used against him because he doesn’t know.” (HuffPost India)

“Voter suppression” allegations:” The issue of so-called missing voters has since animated political parties, with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal going as far as to suggest that the Bharatiya Janta Party has deliberately sought to suppress voting of those opposed to the BJP.”

For more, read HuffPost India’s detailed story. Read here.

Second, in Mizoram, where elections are due this month, civil society groups are at war with the chief electoral officer.

What’s the controversy?

Previous ECI controversies: Last year, the EC was stuck in two main controversies.

Why you should care about all of this:

The legitimacy of an election depends on the electorate accepting that it was fair, that everyone who tried to vote got to vote and that every vote counted. Lose that, and your voting system might as well have suffered a devastating technological attack.

That loss of trust has itself become a form of voter discouragement. Why vote, when you feel it may not matter? Why register, when you fear you may be tossed off the rolls? — (Zynep Tufecki, New York Times)

If you want to watch a movie: Check the award-winning movie Newton, starring Raj Kumar Rao, which raised serious questions about the electoral system that we are so proud of.