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Electoral reform is welcome, but shouldn’t be selective

🔴 S Y Quraishi write: Government must take up all pending electoral reform proposals, instead of only going for politically motivated reforms like simultaneous elections and electoral bonds.

Written by S Y Quraishi |
Updated: December 23, 2021 9:27:14 pm
The process for making electoral rolls is laid down in the Registration of Electors Rules, 1960. The primary unit of electoral rolls is the assembly election constituency. (File)

A wide range of electoral reform proposals has been pending with the government, several of them for over two decades. Successive governments have evaded these, claiming a lack of consensus. The three reforms — common electoral rolls for Vidhan Sabha and panchayat elections, extending the qualifying date for registration of young new voters, and linking of Aadhaar with electoral rolls — taken up by the Union Cabinet on December 15 are, therefore, significant. Subsequently, on Tuesday, the Rajya Sabha passed the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill that seeks to link the electoral rolls with the Aadhaar database. The Lok Sabha had passed the Bill on Monday.

Currently, separate electoral rolls are maintained for elections to the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabha and local government bodies (panchayats or municipal). For years, the ECI has been advocating a common electoral roll for all elections — I remember discussing this at the annual joint meeting of ECI and State Election Commissions (SEC) in 2011 where many state election commissioners had the same opinion.

There are two types of election management bodies in the country — the ECI that conducts the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections and SECs that conduct panchayat and municipal elections. The SECs have the option of either adopting the electoral rolls created by the ECI or preparing such rolls on their own. Most prefer to use the rolls prepared by the ECI. Some states, however, develop their rolls independently. These are Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Odisha, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

The process for making electoral rolls is laid down in the Registration of Electors Rules, 1960. The primary unit of electoral rolls is the assembly election constituency. Several such constituencies are aggregated to make a Lok Sabha constituency or broken down to make municipal or panchayat wards.

Considering that a voter for all three tiers of elected bodies is the same, why is it that she finds her name missing from one of the rolls, mostly the panchayat rolls? This is particularly surprising when the officials responsible for making both these rolls are the same. A common electoral roll is thus a logical solution. A common experience has been the stuffing of bogus voters in the panchayat/municipal rolls. This perhaps happens because becoming a panchayat member has become extremely lucrative since the panchayats started getting crores as funds after the PRI Act, 1993. Corrupt practices are proportionately higher in PRI polls.

The process of making electoral rolls requires manpower from all governmental departments. A major chunk of the work falls on schoolteachers. Their involvement in non-teaching work takes its toll. A common electoral roll will obviate the need for deploying them repeatedly, besides saving enormous costs. The only difference between the PRI and Vidhan Sabha rolls is that the former has information about the ward in which the voter lives. The enumerator (usually the Booth Level Officer) knows the ward number of each home. All she needs to do is to write it in an additional column, which will be masked for state legislature elections and unmasked for PRIs where elections are conducted ward-wise.

The ECI and SECs can issue joint instructions for preparing the common rolls. The roll-making machinery stays the same. Since different elections are held at different times, rolls must be always ready. These should be made every year. Pilot studies may be conducted in random constituencies to identify the discrepancies between two sets of rolls and their reasons.

The second Cabinet decision was about the eligibility date of new voters. According to Section 14(b) of the Representation of People Act of 1950, only those who have turned 18 on or before January 1 of the year are to be registered. This implies that all those who turn 18 between January 2 and December 31 of a year must wait till the next year. This technicality results in the exclusion of a large section of 18-year-olds.

The ECI has been expressing concern over these issues for some time. It had sent memorandums to the government about common electoral rolls in 1999 and 2004. It had also sent a letter to the Law Ministry on November 4, 2013, which recommended the issuing of a voter card to an individual ideally on their 18th birthday, or updating voter rolls every month or quarter. The current government has begun addressing these issues, which is undoubtedly a progressive step.

On August 13, the PMO called a meeting to discuss ways to issue a common electoral roll. The SECs derive their powers to supervise local body elections from Articles 243K and 243ZA of the Constitution. Amendments to these articles to make a common electoral roll for all elections of the country compulsory was discussed at the meeting. Second, all state governments would have to change their electoral laws to adopt ECI electoral rolls for local elections. A committee of the Ministry of Law and Justice under Sushil Kumar Modi has proposed quarterly cut-off dates for voter registration — January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1.

The proposal to link electoral rolls with Aadhaar was first mooted by the ECI in 2015 but work on it had to be stopped when the Supreme Court ruled that Aadhaar cannot be used except voluntarily for beneficiary-oriented schemes. In my view, the linking will help in identifying duplicate voters, something that ECI has been desperately attempting for years using various “de-duplication” software with limited success. But how will this “voluntary” linking be implemented? Will 90 crore voters be asked individually?

Any progress in addressing the vexed issue of electoral reform — even in a piecemeal manner — is welcome. The time has, however, come for the government to consider the 40-plus pending proposals, instead of selectively going for politically motivated reforms like simultaneous elections and electoral bonds.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 23, 2021 under the title ‘A time for electoral reform’. Quraishi is former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder — The Making of the Great Indian Election

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