India's Supreme Court has directed the country's Election Commission to introduce a paper backup of votes cast through electronic voting machines, but allowed the commission to introduce it in stages during general elections next year.
Political and civil rights groups in India have been demanding that the EVMs should be equipped with the facility to print the running record of the votes for the purpose of verification, particularly after some researchers claimed that the machines could be hacked.
The court, overruling a decision by a lower court, described the paper backup or paper trail as an "indispensable requirement of free and fair elections." As the commission has to handle 1 million polling booths during a general election, the court permitted it to introduce the facility "in gradual stages or geographical-wise" at voting booths of its choice.
The commission submitted in the court that the machines could not be tampered with, but was still planning to introduce a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail system, and had tested the systems in smaller elections.
The High Court of Delhi ruled last year that there may be security issues with EVMs, as pointed out by petitioner Subramanian Swamy, a prominent politician, and had asked the commission to resolve the issues in consultation with stakeholders including the country's Parliament.
India first tested EVMs in a by-election in 1982, but the machines were first deployed on a large scale of over 1 million in a general election in 2004.
In 2010, security researcher Hari Prasad and his associates released a video that they said demonstrated vulnerabilities in the EVMs, after hacking an EVM that had already been used in an election.
Prasad and his team replaced the display board of the machine with a look-alike component that could be instructed through a Bluetooth connection on a mobile phone to steal a percentage of the votes in favor of a chosen candidate. The researchers also used a pocket-size device that could be attached to the memory of the EVM to change the votes stored in the machine during the period between the election and the public counting session.
The Supreme Court has in its ruling this week asked the government to provide the financial assistance required by the Election Commission to roll out the EVMs. It has not set out a schedule for the full deployment of EVMs with the paper trail.