With a national election slated to be held in Bangladesh on December 30, the issue of the usage of electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the poll has created a rift in parliament.

If ultimately used, it will be eight years after EVM technology was first introduced to Bangladesh in a local government election. Back in 2010, EVMs were first used in the Chittagong City Corporation (NCC) election, but from 2015, the Election Commission (EC) stopped using the technology as it found some errors in the machines.

Now, while the ruling coalition led by the Awami League clearly advocates the use of EVMs, the opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) vehemently opposes it, saying EVMs will foment election rigging.

The recently formed opposition alliance named National Unity Front (of which BNP is a stakeholder) placed a seven point list of demands to the ruling party coalition as well as to the EC, which included not using EVMs in the upcoming election.

Their justification for such a demand is that the country “is still not prepared for it”, as there remains deep distrust among the main political parties. Also the use of EVMs would open the gates to “digital corruption,” said the main opposition BNP, clearly mocking the ruling Awami League’s much publicized policy goal of creating a “Digital Bangladesh.”

The Election Commission (EC) of Bangladesh however has sent a letter to the Planning Commission, asking them to allocate US$142.6 million to buy 84,000 EVMs ahead of the poll.

Bangladesh’s President Abdul Hamid on October 31 also promulgated the “Representation of the People Order (amendment) Ordinance, 2018”, paving the way for use of EVMs in the upcoming election.

Argument within the EC

Out of five Election Commissioners in Bangladesh, only one has strongly opposed the usage of EVMs in the upcoming poll.

Commissioner Mahbub Talukder even walked out of a commission meeting, recording as he did so a note of dissent.

“I am doubtful that the commission can complete necessary training in the run-up to the elections. Also, there have been some untoward incidents with the EVMs when (they were) used during the previous city corporation elections,” he wrote in his note of dissent.

“There have been allegations that vote rigging has taken place with EVMs,” he wrote, “The use of EVMs alone can plunge the national elections into controversy.”

Talking with the Asia Times, Talukder said he is not against the technology but pointed out two impediments in implementing it: the lack of trained manpower to handle the technology and the level of people’s distrust over its usage.

“Other countries including our neighboring India who had used EVMs in their elections have given birth to controversies. Considering this, I am opposing its usage in the upcoming election,” he said.

Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda said at a public event on October 27 that the EVMs will be used on a “limited scale in the national election” to check “vote rigging” as well as to protect the “interest and dignity of voters.”

There would be no scope for hijacking the ballot paper, stuffing ballot boxes at night or (people casting other voters’ votes), said CEC Huda.

Political pressure for use of EVMs?

Interestingly, in May 2017, CEC Huda had said that EVMs will only be used in the next parliamentary polls “if all political parties agreed.” Six months later, he said that EVMs will not be used in the next general election as the commission was not prepared for it.

But the EC’s interest in using EVMs resurfaced in 2018 after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina requested President Abdul Hamid to ask the EC to use EVMs in the election.

Talking with Asia Times, Awami League Presidium member Faruq Khan said that doubting EVMs has “no logic”, as by using these machines, the vote counting could be done in a quicker and more efficient manner.

“In this era of technology, eventually all countries will shift towards using EVMs instead of paper ballots. The sooner the better and I believe in that,” said Khan.

BNP standing committee member Moudud Ahmed, however, told Asia Times that many countries have stopped using EVMs due to the system’s lack of reliability and acceptability. “The Awami League-led coalition has realized that it is not possible to manually control elections, so it is now trying to control it by machines.”

Senior Joint Secretary General of BNP Ruhul Kabir Rizvi declared that the use of EVMs was about vote rigging: “We think the unilateral decision of using EVMs was taken as part of a master plan to rig votes in the next parliamentary polls,” said Rizvi.

Are EVMs safer?

The EVMs for Bangladeshi elections were first built in 2010 with design and technical knowledge from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and support from Bangladesh Machine Tools Factory (BMTF), which is owned by the Bangladesh Army.

Dr SM Lutful Kabir, professor at BUET who headed the technical team of the EVM project has termed it as “a more secure voting medium” than that of a manual one.

Speaking with Asia Times, he said, “The EVM has no extra risk other than the ones prevailing in a manual voting system.”

The EC approved EVMs have a control unit and a ballot unit, which are interconnected by wires and become functional only when a smart card is inserted.

He explained that the ballot unit of the EVM becomes dysfunctional for 10 seconds after a vote is placed. During this time the voter will leave the booth. This, it is claimed, effectively blocks any attempts at vote tampering.

Also in the case of an attack on a polling center, the voting process can simply be stopped by pressing the “close” switch on the control unit.

“Suppose, an assistant presiding officer helps the party cadre to cast a vote but still the vote has to be placed by pressing the electoral symbol switch at the ballot unit and this process will take lots of time. (Per minute only five votes can be placed)”, he said.

“So the situation is much more secure than the manual one where the polling center could be invaded and the ballot box could be easily replaced to alter the election results”, he said.

But Dr Kabir admitted that no electronic system in the world is “totally secure.” The smart card supplied to the assistant presiding officer could be faked, and that card could alter the result in the EVM. “But in that case the password with the smart card needs to be hacked, which is technically very hard,” he added.

Also if a center is invaded, then certain microchips could be installed in the EVM which could alter the pre-installed program and change the election result, he said.

“But these are all possibilities that prevail in a manual voting system. And the security measures that are taken in EVMs are more secure than those of the manual one,” said the BUET Professor.