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Why EVMs matter in India

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-07-2017 Sumit Mishra

It’s been a long time that the paper ballot has been replaced by electronic voting in India. But the change has come under increasing scrutiny in recent times, with parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Aam Aadmi Party alleging that the recent verdicts in state assembly elections which went against them were because the electronic voting machines (EVMs) had been tampered with.

Parties that perform poorly in polls have often ascribed their woes to EVMs. In 2009, for instance, the Bharatiya Janata Party claimed that the United Progressive Alliance won the Lok Sabha elections because of EVM fraud. BJP leader L.K. Advani had demanded back then that the Election Commission should replace EVMs with paper ballot.

Complaints about EVMs are neither new nor unique to India. They abound in the West, too; in the case of the Netherlands, controversy over the use of EVMs in the mid-2000s led authorities to revert to the use of paper ballots. But such decisions have often been driven by sentiment rather than a careful weighing of evidence.

A growing body of scholarly work seems to suggest that contrary to what conspiracy theorists claim, EVMs have largely led to deepening of democracies and helped improve development outcomes by empowering the poor. In India and elsewhere, EVMs have typically been introduced in a phased manner, with some constituencies using paper ballots even as others started using EVMs. This feature allows researchers to compare outcomes in the two kinds of voting, and come up with interesting insights on the impact of voting technology.

In a recent research paper, political scientists Zuheir Desai and Alexander Lee of the University of Rochester analyse data from three Lok Sabha elections to show that the switch to electronic voting in India almost eliminated invalid votes: “This result stems directly from the design of the machine: Indian EVMs, with their finite menu of buttons, make it almost impossible to cast an invalid ballot.”

This shift led to an increase in the vote share of smaller political parties, increasing political competition, the researchers show. The researchers also found no evidence for increases in voter error or fraud because of EVMs. They argue that while the design of the machines makes booth-capture difficult (EVMs are designed to register a maximum of five votes per minute, which means it takes far longer for booth-capturers to stuff EVMs than traditional ballot boxes), it does not eliminate the possibility of booth capture altogether.

The researchers also found no evidence that machines with an auditable paper trail perform differently from other EVMs. However, they point out that this does not suggest that the new machines are useless, since such machines may help prevent election fraud in the future.

Another recent research paper based on a richer data set, authored by the economists Sisir Debnath of the Indian School of Business, Mudit Kapoor of the Indian Statistical Institute, and Shamika Ravi of Brookings India suggests the introduction of EVMs not only helped reduce election fraud but also helped improve development outcomes by empowering poor and marginal voters.

They make a number of interesting claims. First, their analysis shows that introduction of EVMs led to a sizeable decline in electoral frauds. This decline in electoral fraud was especially large in states where polling was more vulnerable to rigging. Secondly, introduction of the new technology led to greater participation of women and of voters belonging to scheduled castes and tribes. Third, the electoral process became more competitive, i.e., the share of the winning party and the margin of victory in elections declined. Fourth, their analysis also shows that EVMs led to an increase in access to electricity. Finally, they find evidence that after the introduction of EVMs, there has been a significant fall in the incidence of crime in India. The last claim needs to be interpreted with caution given that official data on crime often suffers from under-reporting, and hence any reported decline in crime rates may not reflect the true level of crime in a region.

In India and elsewhere, EVMs have typically been introduced in a phased manner, with some constituencies using paper ballots even as others started using EVMs. Graphic: Mint

Some of the other findings may appear quite surprising but they are backed by sound economic logic and robust empirical evidence from other parts of the world, which suggest that improvements in voting technology often tend to empower poor and marginal voters, which in turn leads to better development outcomes.

Most economists tend to view political outcomes through the prism of the ‘median voter’ theory, which suggests that an elected leader must align his or her decisions with the voter at the middle of the spectrum of public opinion. In other words, a politician must win as many people in the middle as possible to swing election outcomes in his or her favour.

The theory suggests that if more and more people, especially from the poorer strata, start voting, the median voter will tend to be poorer than earlier, and thereby might demand more welfare measures from those seeking his or her vote. In a 1981 paper published in the Journal of Political Economy , the economist Allan Meltzer showed that greater participation of the poor will mean greater share of the governmental pie being allocated to them.

Thus voting technology matters as it helps determine who gets to vote. This in turn determines the kind of public policies elected representatives pursue. It is this effect that helps explain the positive spillovers from using EVMs such as greater access to electricity in India. Debnath and his co-authors suggest the introduction of EVMs led politicians to focus more on the median voter rather than on vested interests, boosting power supply in those areas.

India’s case is not unique. In the 1990s, Brazil decided to switch from paper ballots to EVM technology. The primary purpose of the technology was to make the electoral process more efficient by reducing time in counting votes and correcting voting errors. A 2015 research paper by Thomas Fujiwara of Princeton University shows that the switch in voting technology helped improve health outcomes.

Fujiwara used the phased introduction of voting machines in Brazil to study their effects on health-care spending. He found that regions where the new technology was being used spent more on health than those regions where EVMs were introduced later.

Fujiwara concluded that by empowering the votes of the poor and the illiterate, the machines encouraged the lawmakers to pay heed to the preferences of the poor. Since the poor rely on public health facilities much more than the rich, these facilities saw greater investments than before. He also showed, with some caveats, that the machines also had positive effects on the number of prenatal visits by healthcare workers, and had a negative effect on the number of low-weight births by less educated mothers.

If new voting technology is transforming democracies, why is the technology still seen with suspicion? Perhaps this is in part because of the belief that certain political parties can manipulate these machines much more easily than in the case of paper ballots. Such beliefs can spread fast or turn ‘viral’ after surprising election outcomes. The US election of 2004 is a case in point, which led to a burst of conspiracy theories online.

“The email messages and Web postings had all the twitchy cloak-and-dagger thrust of a Hollywood blockbuster,” a 2004 New York Times report observed. “‘Evidence mounts that the vote may have been hacked’, trumpeted a headline on the website ‘Fraud took place in the 2004 election through electronic voting machines,’ declared In the space of seven days, an online market of dark ideas surrounding last week’s presidential election took root and multiplied.”

In a 2007 research paper, the economists David Card and Enrico Moretti of University of California, Berkeley, examined disaggregated voting patterns to check for evidence of systematic fraud. If such fraud had happened in the 2004 US elections, they were most likely to occur in important swing counties that could affect statewide election totals or in counties where election officials had incentives to influence results. But Card and Moretti found no such evidence of systematic fraud in the data.

“We find no evidence that touch-screen voting had a larger effect in swing states or in states with a Republican governor,” they concluded.

The available body of evidence collected by political scientists and economists seem to suggest a strong case for EVMs in India. In developing countries such as India, electronic voting, with basic features, may be the most optimal way of increasing the number of valid votes. This, in turn, could enable greater participation of the disadvantaged and the poor.

This does not imply that EVMs, especially the outdated models and the ones without audit-trails, are foolproof. But in a country like India with a long history of electoral fraud and booth-capturing, basic EVMs could be much more welfare-enhancing than paper ballots.

The case for reverting to paper ballots is based largely on fears and conspiracy theories, and on unfair comparisons with developed democracies such as the Netherlands and France. The costs of such a move should not be underestimated. It is the poor and the underprivileged who stand to lose the most if India turns back the clock on voting technology.

Sumit Mishra teaches economics at the Institute for Financial Management and Research, Sri City.

Economics Express looks at the world through the lens of economics.


■ The Impact of Electronic Voting Machines on Electoral Frauds, Democracy, and Development by Sisir Debnath, Mudit Kapoor, and Shamika Ravi, Brookings Working Paper, 2017

■ Technology, Choice, and Fragmentation: The Political Effects of Electronic Voting in India by Zuheir Desai and Alexander Lee, University of Rochester Working Paper, 2017

■ Voting Technology, Political Responsiveness, and Infant Health: Evidence from Brazil by Thomas Fujiwara, Econometrica, 2015

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