Arnt Gulbrandsen
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Indian election machines

Earlier this year Hari K. Prasad and others got hold of an Indian election machine and proved beyond doubt that they can be manipulated. I wrote a long, angry blog post, which I forgot to post. Now I post it, edited to be a less angry and with an added link.

Indian election machines don't suck. They're a great design for Indian elections. The attacks on them (bad seals, etc) also worked against the previous paper-based system.

A detour first. The Indian election machine design is a simple 8-bit CPU, a tiny bit of RAM, a little more ROM, one button per candidate, one button to start collecting votes and one to display the counts. It runs on AA batteries. The device is made by some manufacturer or other, but people trust it because it's from the EC and arrives in the company of EC officials (strictly speaking, IAS officials seconded to the EC during the election).

The EC, or Indian Election Commission, is the federal agency that runs both federal and state elections in India. It's independent of everything — it lives next to the Supreme Court and Parliament, not below anything, and it's widely trusted. The commissioners are a ferocious bunch whose usual answer to meddling politicians is up yours. John Wayne playing sheriff in the wild west comes to mind.

So, the situation. Indian elections are strange beasts: Many or most voters are illiterate, a big fraction (maybe a majority) of voting happens in villages where there's no electrical power and no lockable doors, most candidates are scheming crooks. India is the land of free enterprise, and the candidates are nothing if not enterprising. Still the voters vote, the vote counts and pundits speculate even in Bihar, India's most upgefucked state, from which new scandals emanate every day of the week.

The candidates mostly have observers (also called gun-toting goons) near the voting booth in each village, and by watching who turns up to vote and who stays away, those goons have a fair idea of how the voting is going. The announced vote totals usually surprise noone.

In the time of pen and paper, billions of voting forms would be printed by specially cleared printers, transported to the voting booths (not a simple matter on Indian roads), guarded until polling day, and voting would start. Afterwards the paper would be transported again, and counted using a painful, bribe-proof procedure.

Nowadays, the election officials transport a smallish machine, some AA batteries and a few sheets of paper. Much easier. The machine is initialised (once — it cannot be reinitialised), accepts votes, then it displays the counts, which are written down together with the machine's serial number, and signed by all attending. The whole process is closely watched by each candidate's goons.

Logistically the machine is a giant improvement.

It also eliminated the most common attack, the booth takeover. The goons would notice their supporters staying away, grow angry, and sometimes storm the polling booth with guns drawn and stuff the ballot box. Nowadays they grow angry, storm the polling booth, shoot the election machine to pieces, and after two or three weeks, when everyone has calmed down, the election commission sends in another team with a new machine.

Finally, the machine is user-friendly. All those illiterate voters are voters who don't know the pen and paper UI. The machine has a transistor radio UI.

All this doesn't mean that the Indian machine (or any machine) would be suitable for other countries' elections. One size does not fit all. Where I live, candidates won't try to bribe the vote printers or counters, armed thugs don't storm the voting booths, voters are familiar with paper, and there are fine, lockable, rainproof rooms for storing vote forms.