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Attack on EVMs resumes after Mid-Day claimed a phone was used to unlock EVMs, here is how the report is completely fake and misleading

From the police quotes included in the report, it is clear that it is a simple case of a phone found inside the counting station without authorisation. There is no quote from any police officer talking about any EVM or OTP or unlocking anything.

After better-than-expected results secured by the opposition parties in the Lok Sabha elections, attacks on Electronic Voting Machines have almost stopped. However, some sections continue to create doubt about India’s secure electronic voting system. On 16 June, Mid-Day published a sensational report claiming that a relative of newly elected Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Waikar was able to connect to EVMs using his mobile phone.

The report claimed that a mobile phone was used for generating the OTP that unlocked the EVM machine, which was used inside the NESCO Centre during the counting of votes on June 4. The report states that police have launched an investigation into the case and sent the phone for examination to the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL).

Notably, the report didn’t say what did Mangesh Pandilkar, Ravindra Waikar’s relative, do after ‘unlocking the EVM by generating OTP on his phone’. It just noted that Waikar won by 48 votes, but didn’t say Pandilkar increased votes in the EVM using his phone. On the other hand, towards the end of the report, it states that an Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS) for Service Voters was present in the centre. It states that another accused Dinesh Gurav used the same phone to generate OTP to unlock the postal ballot system.

Mid-Day claimed, “During the counting of votes through the EVM machine, the candidate Amol Kirtikar was ahead but when the votes on the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System were counted, Kirtikar lagged behind, eventually losing the race to Waikar.” The report tried to insinuate that the Shiv Sena candidate won because his relatives used a phone to unlock an EVM and an ETPBS by generating OTPs.

Following the publication of the report, attacks on the EVMs have resumed on social media. As expected, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi used the report to resume his attacks on EVMs.

While the police have launched a probe over the use of a phone inside the counting centre in Mumbai, the Mid-Day report is grossly misleading. It claims Mangesh Pandilkar used a phone to generate OTP to unlock an EVM, which is a completely baseless claim. Electronic Voting Machines are not connected to any network, and they can’t be ‘unlocked’ remotely by generating an OTP.

After the voting is done, EVMs are sealed physically, and the authorised polling agents of the candidates along with polling officials sign on the seal. The EVMs are then stored in strong rooms where also agents of candidates are allowed to keep a vigil. On the counting day, after the EVMs are taken out, the counting agents of the candidates are allowed to check the seals and the signatures. After everything is found to be ok, the seal is broken, and the result button is pressed to see the number of votes polled by each candidate in that EVM.

At no stage from allocating EVMs to polling booths to voting to counting, there is any provision to lock or unlock EVMs remotely using OTPs. The EVMs are sealed and unsealed physically, not electronically. Therefore, the claim that the Shiv Sena MP’s relatives used a phone to OTP to unlock EVMs is completely fake news.

The report also talked about the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System being unlocked by the same phone.

What is ETPBS

The ETPBS has been used to replace the previous postal ballots used by service personnel for voting. However, even in this system, the votes are not sent electronically. The ETPBS is used to send the ballot papers electronically to the service voters.

The electronic ballots are sent to the voters in an encrypted form with multiple levels of security like passwords and PINs. After receiving and downloading the postal ballots, the respective service voter prints the ballot, marks the vote and sends it to the concerned Returning Officer via post.

The system was introduced to remove the hassles and delays in sending the blank postal ballots to service voters, such as printing each ballot, putting them in envelopes, putting the address etc, which took too much resources and time. Now, the ballots are sent in an encrypted electronic form, like sending a form via mail. But the votes are still cast on paper ballots only.

Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System is the name of the system used to send postal ballots in electronic form, it is not some specific machine like EVM. The system works on standard computers and networks. ECI has a portal for the ETPBS, where the respective election officers can log in from any internet-connected computer to generate and send postal ballots.

ETPBS Process flow from ECI website

To log into the portal, the Returning Officer needs to provide an OTP received on the officer’s registered phone number. After that, the RO prepares password-protected postal ballots for the constituency and uploads them into the system. The ballots are then immediately sent to the concerned voters electronically. To send the ballots, the service voter electoral roll data is used which contains the links between the service voter, unit officer and the record officers.

At the service unit end, the designated officer logs into the system using a password and OTP and downloads the postal ballots. The password-protected postal ballots are then sent electronically to the service voters of that unit. PIN to open the ballot is sent to the voter separately, to ensure that only the concerned voter can open the ballot.

After receiving the ballot, the service voter prints the ballot and marks the vote on it. The voter also needs to sign a form along with it. After that, the ballots are put in a specific envelope provided to the voter, it is sealed, and it is sent by post to the respective Returning Officer.

Therefore, although the system has the words “Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot”, this refers to one waty of the transmission, sending the ballot to the voters. The voters do not send any electronic vote, they print the ballots and send those printed ballot papers for counting.

Counting of postal ballots

The postal ballots are counted at the beginning of the counting in the morning. They are not counted at last after counting EVMs, as claimed by Mid-Day.

Unique serial numbers are printed on the envelopes which are also recorded in the system, and they are verified before the counting. Therefore, the counting officer needs to log into the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System during the counting process, to verify the serial numbers.

However, the ETPBS does not store any vote. Therefore, even if someone manages to get into the system, the votes can’t be manipulated. The postal votes are on printed ballot papers, any phone or OTP can’t manipulate them.

Therefore, the claim that Ravindra Waikar overtook Amol Kirtikar after Dinesh Gurav ‘unlocked’ the system using the phone is completely misleading. The claim that ETPBS is also used after using EVM machines is also wrong and misleading. Counting of postal ballots starts 30 minutes before the counting of EVMs, therefore the ETPBS is also used before the EVM counting begins, to verify the postal ballots received.

There is no use of the system after EVMs are counted. As the number of postal ballots is relatively small, they are generally completely counted in the first hour of counting itself. After EVM counting is over, VVPAT slips from 5 random VVPAT machines are counted.

Therefore, it can be concluded that the Mid-Day article is completely fake as its headline says that Ravindra Waikar’s kin had a phone that unlocks EVM. No EVM can be unlocked with a phone.

What actually might have happened

From the police quotes included in the report, it seems to be a simple case of a phone found inside the counting station without authorisation. There is no quote from any police officer talking about any EVM or OTP or unlocking anything.

The report quotes senior inspector Rampiyare Rajbhar of Vanrai police station saying, “We have sent the mobile phone to forensics that will be looking into the call records. We are also checking if the mobile phone was used for any other reasons. We have recorded the statement of the other candidates and a notice has been sent to the accused Mangesh Pandilkar and Dinesh Gurav. They will have to come to the police station for the investigation. They seem to be cooperating with us for now if this stops, we will issue an arrest warrant.”

Another cop said, “Now, we are now looking at CCTV cameras of the NESCO centre which might help us know how the mobile phone made its way inside the centre. We are also exploring the angle if more accused are involved in this crime or to find out who supplied this mobile phone.” Here, the ‘crime’ seems to be the presence of the phone inside the centre, not anything related to OTP or EVMs.

From these quotes, it is clear that police have not mentioned anything about unlocking EVMs or generating OTPs. They are investigating how the phone was carried inside the counting centre where it is prohibited, checking call records, and if it was used for any other purpose. The police have not said the phone was used to access or unlock EVMs or ETPBS, which seems to be the addition of the Mid-Day report’s author.

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Raju Das
Raju Das
Corporate Dropout, Freelance Translator

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