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Friday / March 24.

Thus, the Ballot Declares — Button Trumps Paper!

Electronic Voting Machines replace the traditional paper ballot system

By Sisir Debnath

In an attempt to curb electoral malpractices, Electronic Voting Machines were introduced on a national scale by the Election Commission of India in the 1990s. Using data from state assembly elections during 1976-2007, this column analyzes the impact of the machines on electoral processes. It finds that the change in voting technology made elections more competitive, which in turn promoted development.

Free and fair elections to choose political representatives are a cornerstone of a democracy and a fundamental human right of citizens. Voting procedures play a significant role in the conduct of free and fair elections. They convert voters’ preferences into a political mandate, which in turn forms the basis for policy-making. In practice, however, illegal efforts to shape electoral outcomes in democracies are not uncommon. In the 2013 general elections in Pakistan, Tehreek-e-Insaf — the main opposition party led by Imran Khan — accused Pakistan Muslim League (N) of rigging the election. The protests resulted in a shutdown of Islamabad for several days. More recently, the Turkish general election in 2015 was marred by controversies. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe denounced the election as ‘unfair’ while the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe expressed ‘grave concerns’ over the fairness of the election.

Electoral frauds such as false voter registration, voter intimidation and irregularities in tallying procedures are clandestine and lead to illegal efforts shaping the election results (Lehoucq 2003). Due to their illicit nature, it’s hard to study the effects of these practices as political agents are careful not to leave trails. One of the reasons behind controversies associated with the choice of voting technology is that there is little systematic empirical evidence on the relationship between voting technology and election outcomes.

Electoral fraud undermines public trust in democratic institutions creating political instability, and may affect long-term growth.

Booth Capturing during Elections

In India, the largest practicing democracy in the world with more than 800 million registered voters and a complex multi-party political system, electoral fraud has been one of the main challenges for the Election Commission of India (ECI). Among various forms of electoral violation such as multiple voting, vote buying and voter intimidation, booth capturing is a major concern. Srinivas (1993) attributed the rise in violence in the early 90s to the politico-economic system and especially to booth capturing.

Booth capturing involves “criminal groups, delegated by political parties, capturing a polling station and stuffing the ballot box with large numbers of votes for the favored candidate” (Herstatt and Herstatt 2014).

Over the years, the ECI has undertaken several security measures to curb electoral malpractices. The first attempt to abate electoral fraud was the introduction of the indelible ink in the 1962 Parliamentary election to prevent multiple voting. Use of photo identity cards for voter identification, deploying security personnel from other states and conducting polls in multiple phases were a few among many initiatives that have been undertaken. The paper ballot system, in particular, posed significant security problems as forging was easy. It was also expensive and inefficient. To address frauds and to simplify the complicated electoral procedure, the ECI introduced electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the late 90s.

An important feature of the EVMs was that it could register only five votes per minute. This feature had significant adverse implications for electoral frauds as polling booths had to be captured for a longer period to rig elections, thereby significantly increasing the cost of booth capturing. Besides enhancing the fairness of the electoral process, the ECI also envisaged that EVMs would improve the efficiency of tallying the electoral results reducing the incidence of human error. Despite their advantages, the introduction of these machines was not smooth.

Introduction of Electronic Voting Machines

Voting machines were used for the first time, as an experiment, in the 1982 Parur assembly constituency in the state of Kerala. Followed by the initial success, the ECI procured 150,000 machines in 1990 to use them on a national scale. However, the political parties were apprehensive about the security of the machines. A petition was filed questioning the statutory authority of the ECI to use EVMs. The Supreme Court ruled that voting machines could not be used without a necessary provision under the law [1]. After the necessary amendments in the constitutions in December 1998, these machines were used in 16 selected constituencies in the state elections in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan [2]. These 16 constituencies were selected on the basis of “their compact character and adequate infrastructure to manage the logistics for introducing EVMs”. Availability of good road connectivity played a major role so that in the event of malfunctioning, these machines could be promptly replaced. The ECI publicized the usage of EVMs heavily to make sure the process of casting a vote using EVMs is well understood.

EVMs used in India can record a maximum of 3,840 votes. Since the number of registered voters in a polling station does not exceed 1,500, the capacity of the machines is sufficient. Election officers, covering 10 polling stations on an average, carry spare machines and replace them in the event of malfunctioning. In the case of a breakdown, votes recorded until the machine went out of order remain safe in the memory of the control unit and it’s not necessary to start the poll from the beginning. The rate of failure of voting machines is less than 0.5%. These machines run on an ordinary 6-volt alkaline battery, therefore, can be used in areas without power connections.

Paper ballots and Electronic Voting Machines used in India

Paper ballots and Electronic Voting Machines used in India | Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

Use of voting machines simplified the voting procedure and quickened the process of ascertaining results. It also reduced the cost of conducting elections as the ECI could avoid printing of millions of ballots. Improper and multiple stamps on paper ballots making the voters’ choice unclear inevitably lead to dismissal of votes. Since EVMs could record only one response, the possibility of rejected votes was virtually eliminated.

The Goa legislative assembly election in June 1999 was held entirely with EVMs. For the Parliamentary election held later that year, EVMs were used in 45 constituencies spread across 17 states covering 60 million voters. Among all the state assembly constituencies scheduled to hold elections in 1999 simultaneously with the Parliamentary elections, only those that were within the confinement of the 45 Parliamentary constituencies, used EVMs. For the state elections in the following year, 2000, again the constituencies that were within the confinement of the 45 Parliamentary constituencies used EVMs. In February 2000, the Commission ordered the use of EVMs in 45 out of 90 Assembly seats in the state of Haryana.

All subsequent elections were held using EVMs. The below figure plots the timeline of the introduction of EVMs in state assembly constituencies in India.

Paper ballots and Electronic Voting Machines used in India

Timeline of Introduction of Electronic Voting Machines in State Assembly Constituencies in India | Photo Courtesy: Ideas for India

Note: The years of the introduction of Electronic Voting Machines are obtained from Election Commission’s orders, and newspaper archives.

Impact of Electronic Voting Machines

Using Indian state assembly elections data from 1976 to 2007 and the variations in the use of EVMs, I, along with my co-authors, find that introduction of EVMs led to a significant decline in electoral fraud (Debnath, Kapoor and Ravi 2016). Constituencies where polling booths were captured and ballot boxes were stuffed resulted in higher voter turnout. After the introduction of EVMs, we find that there was a significant decline in the total number of valid votes and voter turnout, particularly in those states that were prone to electoral fraud and where politicians faced criminal charges. On an average, our estimates suggest that the introduction of EVMs led to a 3.5% decline in voter turnout.

However, these results can also be explained by voters’ negative preference toward EVMs. Voters may not like the EVMs, or it may cause the formation of long lines in polling booths due to the upper limit on the maximum votes per minute. To allay these concerns, we analyse the data from post-poll surveys conducted by an independent agency [3]. Interestingly, we find that the ability of vulnerable citizens (illiterates, females, scheduled castes and tribes) to cast their vote improved significantly after the introduction of the EVMs. Furthermore, voters were less likely to report that they did not cast their vote due to fear of violence or vote capture, or were prevented from voting.

Together these results provide strong evidence that EVMs resulted in a very significant decline in electoral fraud. Additionally, we also find that EVMs led to a virtual elimination of rejected votes.

Voting technology susceptible to fraud may enable the political elite to capture the democratic process. EVMs in India strengthened electoral process making rigging difficult. Therefore, EVMs may affect political competitiveness reflected in the vote share of the incumbents and their chances of re-election. We find that overall incumbent party’s vote share decreases by 8.5% after the introduction of EVMs. This decline was much larger in the states where the ECI was more likely to issue re-poll orders. In the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand, where the re-poll orders were the highest in the 2004 Parliamentary elections, the incumbent party’s vote share declined by additional 9.8% and their re-election chances also plummeted.

Elections and Electricity

Electricity is one of the key issues during state elections, and its provision is primarily under state control. State-level corporations in India are the largest producers of electricity and are responsible for its transmission and distribution. Politicians wield considerable power over the state distribution companies and exercise them to control and manipulate provision of electricity to tilt election outcome in their favor (Baskaran et al. 2014). As a result provision of electricity improves with election cycles. Furthermore, transmission losses also peak just before the state assembly elections (Min and Golden 2014).

Given the close relationship between elections and electricity, we explore the relationship between use of EVMs and provision of electricity. Using annual satellite nighttime lights images for the period 1992-2007 and assembly constituency maps we construct a proxy measure of electricity provision. Our results suggest that constituencies using EVMs had better provision of electricity than their counterparts using paper ballots. Furthermore, provision of electricity improved over time, and the effect is strongest for the year just before the subsequent election. These results imply that the change in voting technology led to strengthening of the democracy by making elections more competitive, which in turn had an impact on promoting development by increased provision of electricity.

Sisir Debnath is Assistant Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Indian School of Business (ISB). He received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. His primary research interests are in the areas of development economics and empirical microeconomics. His paper ‘The Impact of Household Structure on Female Autonomy in Developing Countries’ has been accepted to be published in the Journal of Development Studies. He is the recipient of many prestigious grants.


  1. To allay the concerns articulated by leaders of political parties about the security of EVMs, the ECI commissioned a study by an expert committee in 1990. The committee unanimously certified the machines as tamper-proof. A second committee was appointed by the Commission in 2006 to evaluate the third-generation machines. In their report, the second committee also reiterated the belief that the machines were tamper-proof. However, some recent independent studies have raised several security issues with EVMs used in India (Wolchok et al. 2010).
  2. The percentage of constituencies using EVMs in the states of Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan were 9%, 2%, and 3%, respectively.
  3. We use post-poll surveys conducted by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). CSDS regularly conducts large-scale scientific studies of political behaviour, opinions, and attitudes of the Indian electorate. We focus on post-poll survey data for state legislative assembly elections in the period 2000-2005.

This article was originally published on Ideas for India.

Featured Image Credits: DFAT photo library via VisualHunt / CC BY