The case of the phantom voter

Current headlines reinforce that proper and continuous maintenance of the voter list is a national issue that can no longer be neglected. Current headlines reinforce that proper and continuous maintenance of the voter list is a national issue that can no longer be neglected.

As voting in the Lok Sabha elections continues, serious concerns over major errors in voter lists are making their way into headlines. The lakhs of voters in Mumbai, Nagpur and Pune who were denied the right to cast their vote, the 15 Nagaland polling stations with a voter turnout over 100 per cent and allegations that over 25,000 residents of Tamil Nadu were illegally enrolled as voters in Bangalore Rural, have led to the realisation that there may be a serious lack of due process in the maintenance of India’s voter lists.

Janaagraha, a not-for-profit organisation based in Bangalore, has been working on the issue of voter lists for the past 10 years after a pilot in two Bangalore assembly constituencies (ACs) revealed that close to half of the names in the voter list were erroneous and required deletion, either because the voter had died, shifted or could not be found. A subsequent study conducted before the 2013 Delhi assembly elections revealed that this is not just a Bangalore problem. Janaagraha’s Delhi study showed that close to 20 per cent of the names that appear on Delhi’s voter lists had serious errors, implying that 23 lakh of the 1.23 crore registered voters needed to be removed. Importantly, this study was conducted after the Election Commission (EC) deleted 14 lakh names.

Current headlines reinforce that proper and continuous maintenance of the voter list is a national issue that can no longer be neglected. Poor quality of voter lists has a direct impact on the quality of Indian democracy itself due to potential disenfranchisement, fraud and impact on electoral outcomes. The two principal issues in the quality of voter lists are undeleted errors and mass additions made in a short timeframe close to elections.

The issue of mass additions is clearly evident when comparing the change in the voter list of Bangalore Urban between the 2008 assembly elections to the 2014 Lok Sabha vote. Between the 2008 and 2013 assembly elections, taking into account all additions and deletions, the total number of voters was reduced by a mere 80,683. At the same time, between the 2013 assembly elections and 2014 parliamentary elections, the total number of registered voters increased by 5,29,995 in barely nine months! It is worth questioning how the Bangalore list swelled by over five lakh, given that the population would have hardly grown during this period.

Bulk additions such as these create massive obstacles to ensuring due process, as in cities, particularly at the critical time of elections, the EC does not have its own machinery to rely on, but uses the state machinery (for example, teachers and postal workers), who are also tasked with full-time non-election duties. For an already stretched operation, bulk additions create an improbable task when it comes to proper verification. With few deletions and a bias towards additions, these improperly maintained lists create a huge pool of potential “phantom voters”. This opens the door for the possibility of fraudulence when voting takes place, such as in the alleged case of the false Tamil Nadu registrations. Even the Supreme Court recently acknowledged gaps in checks and balances in voting processes, stating that the “none of the above (NOTA)” voting option would help prevent fraudulent proxy voting that currently takes place.

Moreover, elections are turning into tighter contests between a larger pool of candidates. As already slim margins of victory become razor-thin (down to a few hundred votes in several ACs in the recent Delhi state elections), if even a small percentage of such phantom voters “cast” their votes, this can result in significant swings in electoral outcomes.

Both voter-list issues — bulk additions and few deletions — result in an understated voter turnout percentage in Indian cities. In the Shanti Nagar AC, where Janaagraha helps maintain a clear voter list year-round, between 2013-14, the voter list data shows an increase of 20,306 names and 6,914 more people turning out to vote. Yet, there was a reported reduction in voter turnout percentage. Critically, as the data shows, this was not because fewer people voted but because the overall number of names on the list was overstated. Low voter turnout in Indian cities could well be an urban legend, with the villain being the voter list.

With such major implications, how has this issue gone unnoticed? Despite the processes that the EC has mandated to ensure accurate lists, the task of electoral management, particularly in urban centres, is a massive logistical challenge that the current system is not equipped to handle. This dynamic, mobile urban citizenry is overwhelming an electoral system that was designed for a rural and fairly static demographic. As cities across the country grow ever faster, it is incredibly difficult for the EC to micromanage the last mile of every process when the resources required are invariably stretched year-on-year.

A new system that comprises continuous maintenance and full transparency of voter lists can solve this problem. This system should involve a greater role for technology, which could be used to ensure that voter lists are updated on a continuous basis, mapped onto GIS-based maps, published more transparently for public scrutiny and comment, and with more channels open for citizens to update their names as their status changes. There will also be a greater need for grassroots engagement with communities, since validation of a name requires not only confirmation of identity, but also of residence.

Enhancing the capacities and resources of the EC should also be a top priority. This would, after all, be an investment in strengthening Indian democracy. Until these processes come into place, in order to ensure the accuracy of current processes, the EC should consider disclosing more detailed data on voting, such as polling-booth-wise turnout and comparative data
on votes cast versus names in the voter lists.

The writer is manager, applied research, Janaagraha Centre  for Citizenship and  Democracy, Bangalore