ATM-like Receipts from Voting Machines is a Very Cunning Plan

The news item is titled “Subramanian Swamy wants ATM-like receipts after casting vote through EVMs.” As Baldrick would have said, “That’s a very cunning plan, my lord.” And as Blackadder would have replied, “It is also bollocks.”

First the cunning plan, though.

Raising doubts over whether the electronic voting machines are tamper-proof, Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy today mooted a new idea saying the election commission should modify the EVMs so that one gets a receipt after casting the vote as in the case of an ATM.

“That the EVMs are tamper-proof is a false claim. However, the machines can be modified on the lines of ATM wherein we will get a receipt after casting the vote which can be put into a sealed box,” he told reporters here.

Looks like a good plan. But here’s the catch. We know that votes are often bought and duly paid for by the crooks politicians who generally engage in this farce contest the elections. The voter is usually bribed with a bottle of liquor and perhaps Rs 100, and told to vote. The problem is that there is no certain way of ensuring that the voter indeed voted for the party that bribed him. So a lot of the bribes are wasted on people who end up voting for the other parties. With an ATM-like receipt, the voter can now prove that he has indeed kept his promise.

So here’s how it will go. Party pays Rs 100 up front and tells the voter that he will get Rs 400 upon production of proof-of-voting. (Somewhat like the proof-of-purchase you need to send in to get your cash rebate.) Said voter votes, pockets the little receipt, exchanges it with the party for Rs 400. Now that is called efficiency. The party now does not have to get cheated out of the vote that they bought fair and square (for sufficiently elastic definitions of ‘fair and square.’)

“Waitammit,” you may say, “Does not the party have a reason to not keep its promise now that the vote is cast?” Not really. If the party reneges on its promise, word will get around and the party will lose its credibility. There’s honor among thieves but only because of a reputation effect.

You may object and say, “But that ATM-like receipt is supposed to go into a sealed box. So how can the guy keep the receipt to collect his Rs 400?”

The box is sealed. How can anyone tell whether Mr Bribed Voter deposited it or not? He could as well deposit some other scrap of paper. He would have a reason to do so given that without it he stands to lose Rs 400.

The plan is bollocks. Voting machines are machines with software or firmware that can have malicious bits built into them. They can never be certified to be absolutely tamper proof. Or rather the manufacturer cannot credibly prove that the machine cannot be compromised. There is only one way for making it almost tamper proof: by publishing the software that runs the machines. Open source code has that advantage. Bugs and other concealed features are more likely to be detected by third parties.

All this electioneering and voting is a farce anyway in a country like India. Adding electronic voting machines whose source code is not revealed ups the degree of farce one notch. Adding little ATM-like receipts ups the farce even more. When will all this end?

Related Posts:

A Cargo Cult Democracy. May 2004:

In the case of India, we have a cargo cult democracy. It looks like one with electronic voting machines and election speeches and manifestos, with pollsters and pundits, with election commissioners and voting stations. Only the deep backend is missing. There is no understanding of issues of substance among the people who vote. Put up a name which is recognizable, and they would vote for or against that name. Promise enough freebies (free electricity, for instance) and they will vote for you, never mind that it may bankrupt the state and that eventually it will impoverish the same voting public. For democracy to work, you need accountability — both among those who vote and those who are elected. In an area where the government is seen as a source for endless handouts by the people, and the leaders look upon their stint in the driving seat as an excellent opportunity to steal from the public, democracy is not likely to work.

On Being Ruled by Toads. Dec 2004:

India is as I have maintained before a cargo-cult democracy. Centuries of being ruled by foreigners creates a culture of servility and powerlessness that is hard to overcome. In a strict sense, Indians deserve to be ruled by toads because they “elect” to be ruled by toads. Being ruled by toads has the ripple effect that finally culminates in an abjectly poor country that is euphemistically referred to as a “developing economy.”

Author: Atanu Dey


16 thoughts on “ATM-like Receipts from Voting Machines is a Very Cunning Plan”

  1. Adding little ATM-like receipts ups the farce even more.

    One could imagine an ideal case, when the voter collects Rs. 300 (Rs. 100 each from each of the three leading parties as pre-payment), votes for the fourth party (like lok-satta-party of Jaya Prakash Narayan) and uses the receipt as a toilet paper.

    But, if the voters are smart enough, they would not be living in a farce where they have to play prisoner’s paradox kind of games with their politicians!


  2. I agree with your open source point, but that is only half the correctness battle.

    “[voting] machines must have a voter-verifiable paper audit trails (sometimes called a voter-verified paper ballot). This is a paper ballot printed out by the voting machine, which the voter is allowed to look at and verify. He doesn’t take it home with him. Either he looks at it on the machine behind a glass screen, or he takes the paper and puts it into a ballot box. The point of this is twofold: it allows the voter to confirm that his vote was recorded in the manner he intended, and it provides the mechanism for a recount if there are problems with the machine.”

    I am sorry but, I agree with Subramaniam Swamy. Even a wrong clock tells the correct time twice a day!


  3. No systemic demerits whatsoever if the “receipt” is displayed for a short while to the voter and then automatically deposited into the ballot box, You get instant feedback of authenticity of the choice for the voter, and an audit trail. FWIW, there appears to be consensus on the need for a paper trail among the tech community. EFF leadership and noted Electronic Voting Machine experts like Ed Felten from Princeton concur:

    Diebold opposes this consistently – proof enough that it is sorely needed.


  4. Atanu,

    I think you got it wrong.

    The receipt a voter gets after his EVM voting will have to be deposited in a box kept for that.

    The idea is to recount using paper votes (the receipts) if there is a justified complaint by any candidate ( most often the loser).

    The receipt cannot be taken out of the Booth



  5. (Contnd..) The receipt cannot be taken out of the booth.

    The printer would be in front of polling officer.

    The voter checks the receipt ( which is usually colour coded) folds and gives it to polling officer and the officer puts it in the box assigned.

    It would be the responsibility of the polling officer to ensure that the number of votes in EVM and Number of receipts match.



  6. So what if open source software is used? As you know Aarey milk comes in sealed packets, but if you look closely you will find hypodermic needle marks. The public will be shown open source software. Just before the voting machines are installed on site, the software will be replaced. Look, for a transaction to remain honest in India, every muon and gluon involved needs its own error-correcting code and stamped receipt in triplicate. There needs to be a theorem that, at the point corruption is sufficiently socialized, there is no escape from society’s final demise. But it takes time. Apparently the Titanic took over two hours to sink after the iceberg gashed its hull.


  7. “The voter checks the receipt ( which is usually colour coded) folds and gives it to polling officer and the officer puts it in the box assigned.”

    Wait a minute here. This means that the polling officer, and everybody other official in the booth gets to see who the person voted for. What happened to a secret ballot? Are we to abandon that?

    Other than the point mentioned above, I have serious misgivings over the use of printed receipts. It will make a simple system much more complex.

    Currently we have a hardware based system. The code is burnt into the chip and cannot be changed without removing the whole chip and replacing it with another. This involves opening the EVM and then soldering the old chip out and soldering the new chip in. It would break the seal and immediately be detected.

    To make a printable system, it would require a software based system, with the code stored in the form of bits on a floppy. This can be tampered with much more easily than the current system. Viruses can strike a software system and make it store wrong results. The printer can give out, run out of paper etc. It will require a bigger battery backup, of the size of a few lead acid batteries, etc. All in all it is a more complex system. It is always better to use the simple system.


  8. “Soldering the old chip out and soldering the new chip in … would break the seal and immediately be detected” — You don’t get it, do you? Who will do the detection, and how incorruptible are the detectors? When paper ballot elections are rigged throughout India, there are often many smoking guns. But who brings the perpetrators to book? Is there anyone involved in the election process who I trust will inspect the EVM seals and honestly report if any were broken? Why are medicines and food items routinely adulterated despite many seals? Honestly, I don’t know, and I’d rather not depend on incorruptible people to implement such a critical and delicate matter as democracy. We need secret-sharing protocols and error-detection/correction codes. I want a formal proof that the system will work when even 49% of the staff involved are compromised, say.


  9. 1. The seal being broken can be seen by any voter. If any one raises an alarm, the whole scheme will unravel.

    2. The soldering – resoldering requires expertise, which cannot be done by just anyone.

    3. After the soldering – resoldering operation, there is a good chance that the EVM might just stop functioning.

    4. Even after the election, a cursory inspection of the EVM can show foul play, and a re-election of that area can be called.


  10. “I want a formal proof that the system will work when even 49% of the staff involved are compromised”

    I am sure that before the election the EVM’s are shown to the representatives of each of the contestants. They can check the seals and integrity of the EVM.

    This is a system that does not involve the integrity of election staff at all, but competing interests which keep themselves in check.


  11. What will prevent collusion of the form: “You rig elections in constituency A and I will take B, and we will look the other way as far as voting machines are concerned, in both cases”? Or, “if you point out the askew seal on the machines, we will reveal evidence of who killed that union leader last year”? With a substantial fraction of candidates having criminal records and consciences as tender as sunburnt necks, no one can throw too many stones at any one else.


  12. Come on now. You are making long winded and half-baked arguments here.

    They can be easily demolished. We have a multi party system. There are at least 10 candidates for each seat. Any one of whom can raise the alarm.

    Also, even if the candidates do not raise the alarm, any one of the voters can raise the alarm.

    Also, if the voters do not raise the alarm. The counters later on can raise the alarm and have the election redone.


  13. I too, have little faith in politicians. Most of them are criminals and corrupt.

    However, we should not throw away a simple, robust EVM system in search of a more difficult, more complex, breakable solution.


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