India has electronic voting; why can't the U.S.?

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Sept. 29 2004 8:17 AM

The Bombay Ballot

What the U.S. can learn from India's electronic voting machines.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Remember the Cold War tale of Soviet and American scientists racing to solve the problem of writing in zero gravity? NASA spent a decade and millions of dollars developing the high-tech Astronaut Pen. The Soviets solved the problem another way: They used a pencil.

The story turns out to be (mostly) urban legend, but the lesson holds true. Sometimes less is more. That seems to be the case as the world's largest democracy, India, and the world's most powerful, the United States, scramble to solve another technological puzzle: How to count votes accurately and transparently.

While we in the United States agonize over touch screens and paper trails, India managed to quietly hold an all-electronic vote. In May, 380 million Indians cast their votes on more than 1 million machines. It was the world's largest experiment in electronic voting to date and, while far from perfect, is widely considered a success. How can an impoverished nation like India, where cows roam the streets of the capital and most people's idea of high-tech is a flush toilet, succeed where we have not?

For decades, Indians cast their votes by marking a paper ballot with a rubber stamp. * It took days to count the votes and months to sort out the allegations of fraud. Fifteen years ago the Indian government commissioned two companies to design a simple electronic voting machine—one that was inexpensive, easy to use (even for the illiterate), and tamper-resistant.

The result is a machine that looks like a cross between a computer keyboard and a Casio music synthesizer. (See a picture of one here.) In fact, it's not much of a computer at all, more like a souped-up adding machine. A column of buttons runs down one side. Next to each button is the name and symbol of a candidate or party. These are written on slips of paper that can be rearranged. That means unscrupulous politicians couldn't rig the machines at the factory, since they wouldn't know which button would be assigned to which candidate. Also, the software is embedded—or hard-wired—onto a microprocessor that cannot be reprogrammed. If someone tries to pry open the machine, it automatically shuts down. After much testing, India adopted the machines for nationwide use this year.

Voters show a paper ID card and then cast their ballot by pushing one of the buttons. A light glows red and a beep is emitted, indicating that a vote has been registered. Should trouble arise (and in India it often does), an election official can push an override button that shuts down the system.

Indian elections are prone to "booth capturing." That's when thugs take over an entire polling station, tying up election officials while they stuff the ballot boxes with vote after vote for their favorite candidate. The electronic machines don't solve this problem entirely, but they help slow down the bandits. The machines are programmed to record only one vote every five seconds.

Unlike the machines used in the United States, the Indian machines are not networked. Each one has to be physically carried to a central counting center. This takes more time, of course, but reduces the opportunities for mischief. Someone who wanted to throw the election would have to fiddle with thousands of machines, one at a time.

Tampering with each machine is what some computer scientists call "retail fraud." "Wholesale fraud" is when someone rigs the software from the outset or meddles with hundreds of machines at a central tabulation center. Both types of fraud are troublesome, of course, but to different degrees. The Indian machines are vulnerable to retail fraud but, because of the basic design, are much less subject to wholesale fraud.

American machines, by contrast, may be vulnerable to wholesale fraud. Our machines are far more complicated and expensive—$3,000 versus $200 for an Indian machine. The U.S. voting machines are loaded with Windows operating systems, encryption, touch screens, backup servers, voice-guidance systems, modems, PCMCIA storage cards, etc. They have millions of lines of code; the Indian machines hardly any at all. Why do the U.S. machines have so many more bells and whistles than those in India? One reason is that we can. For us, the cost of electronics is largely irrelevant (thank you, Chinese workers). This explains why your DVD player has more features than a 747. But there's another reason why the U.S. voting machines are so complex. They are designed to satisfy many different customers—the disabled, for instance. India has a central election authority, while in the United States, manufacturers have to design machines to satisfy 50 different sets of state rules. All of this adds up to more complexity and therefore a greater chance that something could go wrong—either intentionally or by accident.

So, might the Indian way work in the United States? Yes and no. The Indian machines are not designed to handle the large number of candidates that appear on a typical U.S. ballot, though this could be fixed without too much difficulty.

There's another hurdle, what Carnegie Mellon professor Michael Shamos calls "technological chauvinism."

"Except for Japanese cameras and German cars, we believe there's nothing high-tech made outside the U.S. that's worth importing," he says. Certainly not from an impoverished nation like India. True, given the rise of the Indian software industry, that prejudice may be waning, but any American politician who suggested adopting Indian voting machines would probably be accused of outsourcing our democracy.

Also, the Indian machines are far from perfect. They don't provide a "paper trail," which some computer-voting experts consider essential. (Many American e-voting machines, too, fail to provide a paper trail.) The Indian machines malfunctioned at 1,800 voting booths (out of 1 million), and voters needed to cast their ballots again. There was still violence in the electronic election, though far less than in previous ones.

India's Supreme Court chose not to rule on a complaint filed by a computer scientist, concerned that the machines were not as "tamper-proof" as the government claimed. One critic, Frederick Noronha, worries that the government-run companies that manufacture the voting machines refuse to make the source code publicly available. "Abuse is possible merely because nobody quite understands how they work, apart from a handful of officials," says Nornonha.

A voting system, whether Indian or American, is only as honest as the officials running it. In other words, computers don't kill elections. People do. A well-designed machine can only minimize the chances for cheating, not eliminate them.

So, we seek solace in layer upon layer of technology. The problem is that each layer creates unintended consequences, plugging one hole but creating several new ones.

For whatever reason—frugality or backwardness or desire for simplicity—India has concluded that the solution is less technology, not more. Or, as the Russians might put it: Why build a million-dollar pen when a pencil will do?

Correction, Oct. 11, 2004: The article originally claimed that Indians used to vote by pressing an ink-stained thumb onto a paper ballot. In fact, Indians voted by rubber-stamping a paper ballot. They pressed their ink-stained thumbs onto the ballot in order to prevent voter fraud. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) 

Eric Weiner is author of the forthcoming book The Geography of Bliss, to be published in 2008.