DisFact #9: How elections can be "hacked"; the world is getting better; Delhi is choking

Happy Sunday, readers!

I am Samarth Bansal. Welcome to DisFact, my weekly newsletter. Do let me know what I can do better, what you would like to see more of, or any other comments. If you like reading this newsletter, please spread the word. If you’ve been forwarded this email, sign up here. For previous issues, check here.

How can elections be “hacked” and what’s happening in India

Elections do not make a democracy. But successful execution of free and fair elections is a key component of democracies.

There are four major ways to “hack” an election, David Karpf, a professor at George Washington University, explained in the WIRED.

  • Weaponised political propaganda: this a feature of our post-truth society, driven by social media platforms.

  • Hacking media narratives: politicians try to hijack the news cycle to set the agenda and news narrative. Journalists across the world often fall for it.

  • Direct tampering with voting machines: this points to the vulnerability of electronic voting systems in the age of cyber warfare.

  • Voter suppression: “Voter suppression is dangerously effective and extraordinarily antidemocratic, but it can only be deployed by government actors,” Karpf wrote.

    Voter suppression isn’t just negative messages that depress turnout. It is active, structural work that creates barriers to voting—kicking voters off the rolls, closing polling locations, implementing poll taxes, and so on.

Democracies cease to function when citizens stop trusting that elections are free and fair. That’s why each and every point stated above is important, even though all are not equally dangerous.

India: Karpf’s piece was centered around American politics. But India is witnessing similar challenges. The Election Commission of India (ECI) is one of the most trusted public institutions in the country and has “significant powers, far greater than what its counterparts in many democracies have at their disposal.” But of late, the ECI has been drowned in multiple controversies. Two stories to note from this week.

First, allegations of voter deletion have surfaced owing to linkage of Aadhaar numbers with voter roll database.

  • What: The ECI wants to link voter rolls database with Aadhaar in order to clean the electoral rolls and weed out so-called duplicate entries in the voter names. This program is called the National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme (NERPAP) and was launched in 2015.

  • The project ran till August 2015, when it was curtailed by the Supreme Court as it was still adjudicating the constitutional validity of Aadhaar.

  • On 27 November, the Madras High Court will hear a petition asking for the ECI to link voter cards to Aadhaar numbers. ECI will most likely comply, reports suggest.

So what’s the debate? In brief, this Aadhaar-Voter rolls linking process can lead to legit names being struck off the voter list. It is important to remove fraudulent people from electoral rolls, but at the same time, officials need to ensure that no genuine people are denied the right to vote because of procedural errors.

The problem highlighted directly corresponds with “voter suppression” issue that I had discussed above: it is possible that those in power can strike off supporters of their opponents for electoral gains.

It is not clear whether any such thing is happening. But we can’t deny the possibility either. The problem is that officials are not sharing enough information to put to rest the questions being raised.

Here are the details:

How many voter IDs have been linked with Aadhaar? ECI won’t tell us: In an RTI reply to Medianama, the ECI has refused to disclose how many voter IDs have been linked with Aadhaar, claiming it doesn’t know. As of March 2018, 32 crore voter IDs were linked with Aadhaar. Moreover, in press conferences, ECI officials are refusing to get drawn into the specifics of the linking process. This raises an obvious question: Why is the EC not sharing this information pro-actively?

Are the deletions legit? In Telangana, 2.2 million voters were removed from electoral rolls since the 2014 elections.

“This large-scale number of deletions is very unusual and the Election Commission must explain this,” said Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu, an RTI campaigner. “Across the country the number of voters goes up every elections, given that India’s population goes up every year. Even if it has been done going by the rule book, those whose names have been deleted must be informed,” said the campaigner, who also runs the public information portal www.factly.in. (Mint)

Let’s take both sides of the argument:

  • Official version: Deletions show the success of the linking process. Non-eligible people are being struck off the list. That’s the whole point of this exercise.

  • Critics: The EC is unlikely to tell the public why someone has been struck off the list. This lack of transparency is problematic. If genuine people have been removed, they will find out only when they go to vote: no one gets a notification saying they have been struck off a voter list.

What past experience tells us: This voter seeding process (linking voter rolls with Aadhaar numbers) is like seeding Aadhaar numbers with ration-card. It is a bulk, probabilistic process.

Now there is enough evidence to show that the ration card verification exercise had significant, measurable drawbacks. Activists had highlighted how genuine beneficiaries were removed in the guise of weeding out “duplicates”.

In interviews with HuffPost India, officers involved in the [voter ID-Aadhaar linking] exercise recalled several instances where names were recommended for deletion because residents were not at home when the verification officer visited.

"The problem with inorganic seeding is that if you have wrong data about an individual, and you use that information, you will cause harm to the individual," said Srinivas Kodali, a cyber security researcher. "The individual has no idea that this data has been used against him because he doesn't know." (HuffPost India)

“Voter suppression” allegations: “The issue of so-called missing voters has since animated political parties, with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal going as far as to suggest that the Bharatiya Janta Party has deliberately sought to suppress voting of those opposed to the BJP.”

For more, read HuffPost India’s detailed story. Read here.

Second, in Mizoram, where elections are due this month, civil society groups are at war with the chief electoral officer.

  • What: “Over 40,000 people took part in a rally in Aizawl Tuesday morning to demand the removal of Mizoram’s Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) S B Shashank over allegations of bias in the conduct of the upcoming polls.” (Indian Express)

  • Why: The central question underlying the controversy concerns withvoting rights for several thousand Bru refugees who fled ethnic violence in Mizoram and settled in camps in neighbouring Tripura.” (Scroll)

  • Who are Bru refugees: “Over 30,000 Brus were displaced from Mizoram 21 years ago following ethnic clashes. Many of them are living in six camps in the Kanchanpur and Panisagar sub-divisions of North Tripura.” (Indian Express)

  • What’s the controversy?

    One: “The Election Commission had decided to use identification certificates issued to Bru refugees by the Mizoram government in 2016 as proof of identity for inclusion in voter rolls.” The state home department had opposed this. (Scroll)

    Two: “The Brus want polling booths set up at the camps, saying that they fear a law-and-order problem if they go to Mizoram to vote. But civil society groups in Mizoram say no electoral process of the state should be conducted outside.” (Indian Express)

  • Implications: “In a letter to the EC, the Federation of Mizoram Government Employees and Workers has threatened that unless Shashank [CEO] is transferred out of the state before 4 pm on November 9, its members would not cooperate in the conduct of polls in the Congress-ruled state on November 28.” (Indian Express)

  • Latest: The Election Commission has asked the Mizoram government to send a panel of names for the post of Chief Electoral Officer (CEO). It will decide on the transfer of incumbent CEO after examining ‘suitability’ of panel of officers sent by state govt. (Indian Express)

Previous ECI controversies: Last year, the EC was stuck in two main controversies.

First, the delay in announcing election dates in Gujarat, which was seen as being favourable to the incumbent BJP government.

Second, EC’s about-turn on Modi government’s creation of a new and less transparent political funding vehicle known as “electoral bonds”: EC had earlier flagged issues with the scheme but later just accepted it.

Why you should care about all of this:

The legitimacy of an election depends on the electorate accepting that it was fair, that everyone who tried to vote got to vote and that every vote counted. Lose that, and your voting system might as well have suffered a devastating technological attack.

That loss of trust has itself become a form of voter discouragement. Why vote, when you feel it may not matter? Why register, when you fear you may be tossed off the rolls? — (Zynep Tufecki, New York Times)

If you want to watch a movie: Check the award-winning movie Newton, starring Raj Kumar Rao, which raised serious questions about the electoral system that we are so proud of.

Human history, in one chart

“Almost all the gains in human well-being in history happened since the Industrial Revolution.”

If you take a long term perspective of human history, you will find that things are getting better.

Luke Muehlhauser, a researcher, collected data available for six different metrics of human well-being and charted those metrics to get a picture of how the world has changed over time, Vox.com reported.

The six metrics are: life expectancy; GDP per capita; the percentage of the population living in extreme poverty; war-making capacity; energy capture; the percentage of people living in a democracy

The results are startling:

The impact of historical events on seven different measures of global wellbeing, by Luke Muehlhauser. Used with permission.

From Vox:

..for most of history, all human events — the rise and fall of empires, the spread of plagues, the spread and schisms of religions, the invention of wheels and aqueducts and the printing press — barely affected the typical person’s life span, political freedom, economic productivity, or wealth. And then, with the Industrial Revolution, all those things changed at once. Within 200 years, the human experience looked very different.

One of the most striking things about the chart is how little most historical events affected it. The 1918 flu epidemic killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million people. It shows up on the chart, but as a brief blip in a general upward trajectory. World War II surpassed that death toll, killing more than 60 million people; it’s not even visible on the graph. Even though our capacity to slaughter each other has been growing — and the 20th century was rife with such atrocities — the overall trajectory has been that things keep getting better.

The world is getting better

Here is another chart from Our World in Data, zooming into the last two hundred years.

Max Roser writes:

To make it easier for myself and for you to understand the transformation in living conditions that we have achieved I made a summarizing visualisation in which I imagine this 200 year history as the history of a group of 100 people to see how the lives of them would have changed if they lived through this transformative period of the modern world.

The chart shows how a lesser number of people are living in extreme poverty, a higher number of people have attained education, live in democracies and have been vaccinated.

Delhi is choking—and it’s really bad

To capture the deadly pollution in New Delhi, Reuters set up a camera on top of their New Delhi bureau and captured hundreds of images over October-November—the worst period of air quality each year in the Indian capital. The images are scary and presents a bleak picture of what it is like to live in the city I call home.

You can read the full story here. There are photos and there is data: a powerful way to communicate the crisis in the city. The video in the tweet below tells everything.

How things change in just one hour: Air quality can deteriorate rapidly in Delhi. The composite image below (from Reuters) shows the difference in only one hour on October 24.

To be sure, the problem exists in other North Indian cities too. I think the reason that discourse is dominant around Delhi is because of the lack of pollution monitoring stations in other cities. Delhi has dozens of such stations with real time data on the state of air quality, constantly reminding that we are living in a “gas chamber”.

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