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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Explained: Why there is objection to linking voter rolls to Aadhaar

The newly passed Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 enables this linkage, which the government says will help check multiple registrations of the same voter. What are Opposition parties objecting to this?

Written by Anisha Dutta | New Delhi |
Updated: December 23, 2021 6:59:52 am
The headquarters of UIDAI, the authority for Aadhaar, in New Delhi. (Express Archive)

On Tuesday, Rajya Sabha passed by voice vote The Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021, enabling “the linking of electoral roll data with the Aadhaar ecosystem” as the Opposition walked out in protest. The Bill had been passed by Lok Sabha on Monday.

What is the government’s argument for bringing the Bill?

The government says the Bill incorporates various electoral reforms that have been discussed for a long time.

The government says linking Aadhaar with electoral rolls will solve the problem of multiple enrolments of the same person at different places. “Once Aadhaar linkage is achieved, the electoral roll data system will instantly alert the existence of previous registration(s) whenever a person applies for new registration. This will help in cleaning the electoral roll to a great extent and facilitate elector registration in the location at which they are ‘ordinarily resident’, a government official said.

A Parliamentary Standing Committee report on demands of grants of the Law Ministry, presented in Rajya Sabha on March 6 this year, had said: “The Committee has been advocating linkage of unique Aadhaar ID Card number with voter I-card which would streamline alterations in EPIC during change of ordinary residence by the electors. The incidence of multiple entry could also be eliminated which is required in participative democracy…”

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In Parliament, Law Minister Kiren Rijiju said linking Aadhaar with the voter ID card “is voluntary. It is not compulsory or mandatory”. He said the government held “many meetings” with the Election Commission before the Bill was brought.

What were these discussions?

In March 2015, the Election Commission had started a National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme that sought to link Aadhaar to voter IDs, in a bid to delete duplicated names. The EC said in a release in May 2015: “Under this programme, beside some other activities, linking and authentication of EPIC data of electors with Aadhaar data is also being done…” However, the EC had “issued necessary instructions to the Chief Electoral Officers (CEOS) of the States/UTs specifying that furnishing of Aadhaar number by electors is not mandatory and it is only optional, as directed by the Supreme Court…”

That year, the Supreme Court made it clear that “the Aadhaar card Scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this Court one way or the other”.

In April this year, the EC wrote to the Law Ministry seeking “expeditious consideration” of pending electoral reforms including the linkage of Aadhar and voter ID cards. Earlier this week, the Law Ministry issued a statement that on November 16, the Election Commission attended an informal interaction sought by the PMO to finalise the Cabinet note on some long-pending reforms.

What are the Opposition’s objections?

Manish Tewari of the Congress said: “The linking of voter IDs and Aadhaar violates the fundamental right to privacy as defined by the Supreme Court in the judgment.”

AIMIM MP Asaduddin Owaisi said if the Bill becomes an Act, the government would be able to use voter identity details for “disenfranchising some people and profile the citizens”. “This Bill is outside the legislative competence of this House… The linking of voter ID with Aadhaar violates the fundamental right to privacy defined in Puttaswamy (case),” Owaisi said.

Rijiju said, “The present legal provisions have some disparity and some shortcomings, and to remove the same, the government, in consultation with the Election Commission and incorporating recommendations made by the Election Commission, we have brought these amendments.” He detailed the proposed amendments to various sections of The Representation of the People Act, 1951.

Rijiju quoted from the 105th report of the Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personal, Public Grievances and Law and Justice, which expressed the view that linking Aadhaar with electoral rolls will purify electoral rolls and will consequently reduce electoral malpractices.

Why should there be a problem with identifying names that appear in multiple rolls?

One of the concerns is whether the Bill’s implementation will be successful if the linkage is not compulsory. The Bill amends the Representation of the People Act, 1950 and the Representation of the People Act, 1951 to implement certain electoral reforms.

The 1950 Act provides that a person may apply to the electoral registration officer for inclusion of their name. The Bill says the electoral registration officer may require a person to furnish their Aadhaar number for establishing their identity. If their name is already in the electoral roll, then the Aadhaar number may be required for authentication of entries in the roll, but people will not be denied inclusion in the electoral roll or have their names deleted, if they are unable to show their Aadhaar cards.

Arghya Sengupta, founder and research director at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, said: “The first justification provided is that bogus voting where one person is voting more than once is taking place… If you’re saying you have to provide it along with your voter ID whenever you go to vote… this will only work if providing Aadhaar is mandatory. However, this section in the law is a bit complicated because it does seem voluntary but the reasons on the basis of which I can choose not to link my Aadhaar will be prescribed by the government for ‘sufficient cause’. Now what that sufficient cause could be is not mentioned in the Bill?…This should be made clear.”

Are there other concerns?

The Opposition has claimed Aadhaar linkage will enable non-citizens to vote. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said in Lok Sabha, “If you are in a position asking for Aadhaar for voters, all you are getting is a document that reflects residence, not citizenship. You’re potentially giving the vote to non-citizens.”

Sengupta said, “This has also been mentioned in the House, that Nepalis and Bangladeshis will not be allowed to vote and this will ensure that doesn’t happen. Now here there is a conceptual confusion… Aadhaar is not proof of citizenship and it is said so very clearly in the Aadhaar Act. We know that voting can only be done by citizens. I’m unable to understand how this will prevent non-citizens from voting because non-citizens can have an Aadhar card… The goal of preventing non-citizens from voting will not be solved with Aadhaar.”

Another concern, raised by the CPI(M) in a statement, is the view that the Bill could violate secrecy of the vote undermining the principle of secret ballots, and the fundamental right to privacy of the voter.

Can individual votes be tracked that way?

“While individual identification of voting choices may not be possible with the linkage of Aadhaar with voter IDs, it will lead to profiling,” said Apar Gupta, Executive Director of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “Verification of a person’s identity is separate from the capturing of the identity which is already happening in booths when a person goes to vote. But it may help the government link it to other services where larger schemes may be designed based on the data…” He added: “The other concern is that there is a documented case that Aadhaar data was being leaked. It could lay the foundation of targeted political propaganda which is against the model code of conduct as well.”

In April 2019, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) complained to police about a Hyderabad-based software company, IT Grids (India) Private Limited, accusing it of illegally procuring details of 7,82,21,397 Aadhaar holders in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, and storing these in its databases. Concerns were raised on account of the alleged security vulnerabilities of UIDAI servers, which the authority denied at the time. The case was transferred to a special investigation team, but the investigation has not made any significant progress.

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