The shocking state of affairs revealed by reports of several lakh names of voters missing from the electoral rolls in Maharashtra, mainly from the country’s financial capital, Mumbai, in the most recent phase of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, has raised troubling questions about the efficiency of the process of periodic electoral rolls revision, inclusion of new voters who have attained 18 years of age, and special enrolment drives and camps periodically organised by the election authorities before a general election or byelection. The irony weighs even more heavily on the popular mind as the Election Commission of India (ECI) way back in 1993 not only initiated the issue of Electors Photo Identity Cards (EPIC), but also followed it up with computerisation of the entire electoral rolls in a phased manner. States like Kerala and Tamil Nadu went a step further in publishing ‘photo electoral rolls’ (displaying the image of every voter on the rolls on printed sheets in all the Assembly constituencies). Such measures, including the more recent online registration of voters, were meant to ensure a near-foolproof voters list over a period of time, besides eliminating impersonation and bogus voting.
Nonetheless, for all the application of latest information technology tools — as recently as April 8 this year the ECI launched a national-level online ‘electoral roll search’ that could be used by voters even from their smartphones to search their names on the rolls — there are still thousands of instances of names of citizens who have been long-time residents at a given address being struck off the rolls. It is a grim reminder that technology cannot be a substitute for care, verification and proper supervision of the process. Burgeoning urbanisation, with people frequently shifting residences, or large numbers of migrant workers moving to cities, calls for a great deal of care to ensure that all eligible voters are included. The process of inclusion and deletion has perforce to be decentralised at the ward level, and the changes made by authorised officials linked to a real-time database that can quickly reflect these changes. This should be possible as the EPIC gives a unique number to every registered voter. Address-change verification processes could also be made citizen-friendly: long lists of apparently missing names that are stuck on house doors often go unnoticed. The distribution of booth slips by the ECI helps those on the rolls find their polling booths. It is an innovation that has flowed from the system of distribution of slips adopted by political parties whose stakes in the elections are high and who are keen to bring in the voters. It is equally important that staying on the rolls or getting on to them is not made a tedious or burdensome task.