The recently concluded national polls have brought to light, yet again, a problem that has plagued every election in India: Discrepancies in voter eligibility and rolls, and the disenfranchisement it inevitably results in. It is hard to think of a more disempowering moment in a democracy than a voter showing up at a booth, only to be told that she is ineligible to exercise her franchise.
This disenfranchisement of voters is likely due to four factors. First, several people are unable to register to vote, for reasons ranging from not being aware of the registration methodology, to the process itself being inconvenient to not even knowing there is one. It is the responsibility of the Election Commission of India (ECI) to inform those that have not registered to vote yet but are otherwise eligible. The ECI does this via mass campaigns since it is not possible for it to exclusively identify unregistered adult citizens. Currently, the easiest way to freshly apply to be registered as a voter is to fill out a Form 6 on the NVSP (National Voters’ Service Portal) or the ECI’s app. This is an extremely cumbersome exercise and potentially an impediment to comprehensive voter registration efforts. Aadhaar can significantly simplify the process, once the ECI has ascertained that a resident is eligible to vote. This whole process could be replaced with a single step Aadhaar based e-KYC.
Second, there are people who have voted at a particular booth previously but have been inexplicably omitted from the voter rolls. In many cases, the ECI does not have the contact details (or updated ones) of voters to notify them before a deletion takes place. The absence of contact information stems from the fact that up until recently, the ECI did not collect these details. In cases where they have contact details, the changes in the same are not made by voters unless the Electors Photo Identity Card (EPIC) is their de facto ID. If during registration, Aadhaar holders do give consent to the ECI to have their contact details shared, they could be preemptively notified about an impending deletion.
Several government functionaries have discretionary powers that empower them to remove names from voter lists. Additionally, the ECI has the right to disqualify citizens from voting under certain conditions as per the Constitution. The ECI maintains and is indeed mandated to publish a list of people disqualified from voting in each state, but the reasons for their disqualifications is not included and likely not recorded either. The most sinister factor is the political adventurism of parties (and politicians) and voters alike. There have been cases reported, for example, of voters that are registered to vote in multiple booths and, thus, can vote multiple times. More worryingly, there has long been speculation that there is incentive for political agents to use their influence to omit people, and indeed whole communities, from the voter rolls. These factors need to be made transparent so that any misuse is fixed. The illegality and perniciousness of private and political actors needs to be checked. Here, Aadhaar’s anti-fraud and deduplication features can be put to use.
Third, several people have been turned away due to discrepancies between their details as listed on the rolls and the ID documents they present for validation. It is common for people who get married or have recently changed other demographic parameters to make the necessary changes to their Aadhaars and neglect other IDs. In such cases, reliance on Aadhaar will mitigate the risks of exclusion that are a consequence of demographic data mismatches.
Fourth, and the most easily addressable cause of this disenfranchisement, is relocation. It is far more likely for people to update Aadhaar rather than their EPIC: The Constitution grants the right to every citizen to cast her vote in the constituency where she is ordinarily residing. There are a number of constitutional stipulations that must be addressed to achieve ordinary residence, but the ECI will accept such documents as a proof of residence (as an electricity or water bill) along with a prescribed form completed. It is often the case that people who have made the requisite changes will feature both on the voter list of their new residence as well as that of their previous residence. This was the very problem for the ECI’s most recent ambassador in Karnataka, Rahul Dravid, who, having only recently changed residences, was turned away from his new booth on polling day.
Many of the exclusions discussed here can be remedied with Aadhaar: It uniquely identifies every individual in the country through all of the same details as the EPIC. Unlike EPIC, Aadhaar captures biometric data, which is generally benign information and only useful in validating uniqueness. The EPIC, however, captures additional information such as familial details — it was a crucial source of identification or proof of residence, but that was before Aadhaar. Ironically, the EPIC does not guarantee a vote: If a name does not appear on the voter rolls, she will not be permitted to vote under any circumstances. Even if a person’s name does appear on the voter rolls, the EPIC is not the only document that is accepted as proof of identity: A considerable portion of voters likely use their Aadhaars to identify themselves. Therefore, the very existence of the EPIC is worth reconsidering today.
The ECI publicly expressed its interest in seeding their databases with Aadhaar to improve the accuracy of the voter rolls and clear doubts of malpractice and duplication error. It also attempted a drive to voluntarily link Aadhaar to voter IDs but was halted by the Supreme Court in 2017. There have been recent reports, however, suggesting that the ECI has been preparing to resume these activities. Given that Aadhaar is the only universal, de-facto identification infrastructure in India today, it is inexplicable that this sangam has not happened yet.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 27, 2019 under the title ‘Aadhaar & vote’. The writer is founder, WalkIn. He previously co-founded, FourthLion Technologies, a political campaign planner.
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