The integrity of electronic voting machines (EVMs) is a controversial topic. News reports continue to debate the relative costs and benefits of EVMs and paper ballots. According to a 2017 Economic Times report, 16 opposition parties requested a return to paper ballots based on EVM tampering allegations. On the other hand, the Election Commission of India (ECI) Technical Expert Committee has regularly vouched for EVMs’ robustness.
In the midst of the often politicised debates, what does the data have to say about the relative merits of EVMs versus paper ballots? Professor Sisir Debnath, an expert in the Economics and Public Policy area at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Shamika Ravi of the Brookings Institution and Mudit Kapoor of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) studied the effects of EVMs in India. Although their study does not directly address the vote-tampering allegations, it sheds interesting light on how EVMs shape election outcomes.
Since the 1980s and 1990s, the ECI has introduced a variety of approaches such as indelible ink and voter ID cards to mitigate fraud. Gauging the impact of some of these interventions presented challenges. In contrast, Debnath notes that measuring the impact of EVMs was relatively straightforward.
These authors’ findings show that EVM usage makes the election process more competitive and enables vulnerable voters to cast their votes. More unexpectedly, when elections use EVMs, constituencies enjoy increased electricity supply. What connection might voting technology have to public services outcomes?
Why Electronic Voting?
The massive scale of voting in India creates a strong case for EVM use. Over 60% of the more than 800 million registered Indian voters cast their vote in the last general elections in 2014 according to a Times of India report. Using paper ballots for Indian parliamentary elections requires some 8,000 tonnes of paper, equivalent to cutting down 120,000 full grown trees. There are other cost inefficiencies, namely recurring expenditures on printing, storage, transportation, counting and security of ballot papers.
A second issue is the frequency of electoral violations such as booth capturing, voter intimidation, and vote buying. According to a South Asia Monitor report, 70% of polling booths in Bihar were declared sensitive or hypersensitive — a euphemism for areas prone to violence. Despite the measures introduced by the ECI, poor and illiterate voters, women and the elderly still remained at risk from violence and vote capture.
The ECI had discussed electronic voting since 1977 mostly for efficiency reasons. In 1999, Goa became the first state to introduce EVMs in its legislative assembly elections. Other states introduced EVMs through 2008.
How does the EVM work? First, election officials check a voter’s ID card and signature. Then they press the ballot button allowing one vote. Inside the polling cubicle, the voter presses the key next to the candidate of choice. A red lamp signals to the voters that the vote is cast. At the same time, election officials are alerted that voting is complete.
By default, EVMs in India only allow five votes per minute. This is a key feature that sets apart Indian EVMs and radically decreases the probability of booth capturing and false ballots.
Moreover, once recorded, it is difficult to tamper with EVM data. The electronic process is also more efficient. It reduces human error and increases speed while counting votes. The study found that these factors directly impact election outcomes.
How EVMs Affect Election Outcomes
Voting technology had interesting effects on voting behaviour. On average, EVMs led to a 3.5% decline in voter turnout. The total number of votes cast with EVMs also decreased by 4.5% relative to EVMs not being used. The effects were stronger in those states where electoral malpractices are more likely.
Could voters’ frustrations, for example, with the long lines induced by the cap of the five votes per minute rule explain the drop in vote numbers? Debnath and his co-authors’ study checked their findings with the help of post-poll survey data between 2000 and 2005 from the independent Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). This step confirmed that EVM introduction significantly improved the voting ability of citizens, especially vulnerable demographics such as females, illiterates and senior citizens. The authors argue that these declines, therefore, indicate significant reductions in electoral fraud.
The research uncovered another electoral effect. Incumbent party vote shares declined by 8.5% after EVM introduction. This suggests that the party in power at least is less able to influence electoral outcomes. Through the five votes per minute rule, EVMs do appear, to some degree, to curb booth capturing. Although EVMs cannot prevent other parties from strong-arming the electoral process, by constraining incumbents, they may make elections more competitive.
EVMs and Electricity
Can fairer elections also encourage elected political parties to take their development commitments to voters seriously? The research found a strong connection between elections and public services provision, especially electricity supply.
Electricity supply is a politically potent public good. Studies have shown that politicians play an important role in determining electricity supply, particularly under conditions of power scarcity, according to a 2014 survey in the Annual Review of Political Science by political scientists Miriam Golden and Brian Min. Another 2015 article by T. Baskaran, Brian Min and Y. Uppal in the Journal of Public Economics has shown how politicians manipulate electricity supply to tilt election outcomes in their favour through control of state power distribution companies.
The authors used an ingenious strategy to measure electricity provision. They used luminosity data from annual satellite night-time lights images from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA’s) military weather satellites for the period 1992-2007. They superimposed electoral constituency boundaries on these maps to measure luminosity as a proxy of electricity.
The authors found that luminosity was higher by 2.5% in constituencies using EVMs as opposed to those using paper ballots. In addition, electricity provision was the strongest for the year just before elections were held. One explanation could be that voting technology makes elections more competitive. If vote-capturing strategies do not work in elections with EVMs, incumbents may try to influence the electorate through public goods provision. EVMs can thus lead to positive welfare effects for voters.
Several computer scientists such as Barbara Simons, formerly of IBM, and Poorvi Vora, of George Washington University, have taken public stances against the integrity of EVMs. While the ECI has committed to introducing steps such as the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) in the 2019 general elections, the controversy refuses to die down.
Although Debnath and his co-authors’ study does not speak to the concerns of these experts, they do demonstrate some of the benefits of electronic voting technology in the realms of electoral and development outcomes.
Debnath notes that although EVM technology has reduced some types of electoral fraud, other forms may have emerged. Election officials must continue to be vigilant about electoral malpractices involving liquor, money, intimidation at the polling booth, or attacks on the voting technology itself. Debnath emphasises,
Public good implementation can be difficult to measure. A 2011 study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Abhijit Banerjee and Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy’s Rohini Pande highlighted the demonstrable benefits of a Politician Report Card in India. This report card gives voters access to data on public goods spending and qualifications of elected officials. In a similar fashion, a dedicated database capturing performance metrics such as public school and hospital establishment could help hold elected officials accountable to their electoral promises. However, most of this data is currently only available at the district level. Constituency level data would help to hold politicians individually accountable.
More research is needed on the connections between voting technology, electoral process robustness, and development goals. That said, fair and free elections are synonymous with the smooth running of a democracy. With all their flaws, EVMs are part of the ECI’s endeavour to protect electoral outcomes against fraud and coercion. EVM design issues must, therefore, be balanced against the costs of not introducing voting innovations to address known issues with paper ballots.
A popular quote, often misattributed to Joseph Stalin, says that “It’s not the people who vote that count, it’s the people who count the votes.” The marriage of technology and democracy in the EVM goes some way towards shielding the counting from human interference. It also begets happy side effects for economic development outcomes.
About the Researchers:
Sisir Debnath is Assistant Professor of Economics at ISB.
Shamika Ravi is Director of Research at Brookings Institution India.
Mudit Kapoor is Associate Professor at the Indian Statistical Institute.
About the Research:
Debnath, S., M. Kapoor, and S. Ravi, 2018. The impact of electronic voting machines on electoral frauds, democracy, and development. Working Paper, Indian School of Business.
About the Authors:
Yogini Joglekar is a Consultant at the Centre for Learning and Management Practice, ISB.
Ashima Sood is a Fellow at the Centre for Learning and Management Practice, ISB and Editor, ISBInsight.