The phantom voters

The phantom voters

The voter list is a key factor in the electoral outcome. Findings show nearly 20 per cent of names on Delhi voter lists may need to be deleted.

The voter list is a key factor in the electoral outcome. Findings show nearly 20 per cent of names on Delhi voter lists may need to be deleted.

As Delhi gears up for the assembly election,attention across the country has clamoured around the string of polls on expected vote share,funding of elections,criminal records of candidates,and even the omission of names from voter lists. However,all of these aspects and the outcome itself fundamentally rest on one key X-factor,which has not received any attention — errors in the voter list. The voter list is the key determinant in who gets to cast their vote on election day,and serious errors in these lists can have massive impact on outcomes.

As part of its Proper Urban Electoral (PURE) List maintenance initiative,over the past one and a half months,Janaagraha has been conducting a systematic survey in Delhi. Findings show that close to 20 per cent of names on Delhi’s voter lists have serious errors that require these names to be deleted,because the voter has died,shifted or cannot be found. In effect,these names are as good as “phantom voters”. Importantly,the study was conducted post the Election Commission’s clean-up of Delhi,which reported removing 14 lakh names.

What does this mean in actual numbers? Out of the 1.23 crore registered voters in Delhi,more than 23 lakh need to be removed. Although the error rates fluctuate across assembly constituencies (AC) surveyed,even the AC boasting the smallest error rate,Ambedkar Nagar at 8 per cent,still adds up to close to 10,000 names to be deleted. In Najafgarh and Burari,24 per cent of names need to be deleted — tallying over 45,000 and 55,000 voter names respectively.


Critically,the impacts of these results stretch far beyond an administrative headache. For the seven ACs in which the PURE List study was undertaken,the margin of victory in 2008 in six was less than the number of names that need to be deleted. In Burari,the margin of victory was 4,990 votes,when the number of names to be deleted is over 45,000. In Shahdara,the margin of victory was 1,536 votes,where the number of names to be deleted is over 25,000. This significant number of errors creates a huge pool of potential phantom voters,opening the door for the possibility of fraud when voting takes place. As we can see from the 2008 margins of victory,even if a small percentage of such phantom voters get their votes “cast”,this can result in significant swings.

Despite the EC’s supervision,none of the major parties can deny awareness of errors in the list and that tactics are adopted to make use of these. Indeed,even the Supreme Court recently acknowledged gaps in checks and balances in voting processes,when noting that the upcoming “None of the Above (NOTA)” option would help prevent fraudulent,proxy voting. Although doing so requires collusion between party representatives as observers,local administrative staff and police personnel,such practices — while becoming increasingly difficult — are still within the realm of possibility. The 2008 assembly election data illustrates that the scale of the phantom voter list is a potentially serious problem. In the upcoming election,this issue could be an even bigger factor to consider,given that it has become a tight three-way contest.

The next question is how this issue has gone unnoticed. Importantly,errors in the list do not rest on bureaucratic neglect or incompetence,but rather signal the emergence of a new order: a dynamic,mobile,urban citizenry overwhelming an electoral system designed for a different electoral demographic.

Urban electoral list management is completely different from its rural counterpart. In rural areas,changes in voter lists are not substantial,since people’s residences are fairly permanent,and hardly anyone new settles in a village. Urban areas see largescale migration both into the city as well as within the city. Given that India has so far been predominantly rural,with a predominantly rural electoral base,the entire electoral machinery has been built around managing rural electoral lists and not urban lists that require more consistent updating and verification. Thus,voter list errors is not an issue Delhi faces alone but one that affects all of urban India.

To stress that this is widely an urban issue,the same PURE List study was conducted in 2013 in Bangalore,with close to 3,500 voter list names in two ACs (an AC where our PURE List maintenance system had been operating for two years and a comparative “control” AC with no intervention). The results show that in the “control” AC,there was a 53 per cent error rate. In the pilot AC,the error rate was 24 per cent. Although there was a 30 per cent difference in error,this data also critically illustrates that rates of urban migration are so high that even adding extra support to a system of maintenance is not yet enough to completely eradicate error.

A whole new system to manage urban electoral rolls will have to be created if this issue is to be addressed. This will definitely involve a much bigger role for technology. Such technology could be used to ensure voter lists are updated more frequently,mapped onto GIS-based polling parts,published more transparently for public scrutiny,and with more channels for citizens to add their names as they move from village to city,city to city,and within cities. There will also be greater need for grassroots engagement,since validation of a person’s legitimate right to be on an electoral roll will require validation not only of identity but also of residence.

If we are to uncover and address this X-factor,especially in the upcoming Delhi election,what is needed in the short-term is greater attention to the election process at urban centres on polling day. In addition,the collection and dissemination of votes cast on election day against votes appearing on voter lists — information currently not permissible to collect,nor publicly available. Beyond this,more public debate and understanding of the problem will speed up consensus on the issues and solutions until a more robust urban electoral listing process is put in place.

Ebony Bertorelli,Santosh More and K.R. Prasad

The writers are with Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy,Bangalore