Re-enfranchise the forgotten voter

There must be the political will to usher in a ‘One Nation One Voter ID’ to ensure ballot portability

Updated - July 06, 2020 01:46 am IST

Published - July 06, 2020 12:02 am IST

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic , the Election Commission of India (ECI) has made it possible for senior citizens above the age of 65 to vote by postal ballot , given that they are at greater risk from exposure to the novel coronavirus. Hitherto, this option was available only to disabled citizens and those above 80 years . However, postal ballots may not minimise the risk of infection and it may be better instead to provide separate voting booths for senior citizens.

Migrants on the margins

Well-thought-out initiatives that facilitate voting and remove obstacles to voters exercising their franchise must be welcomed. We would urge that the same empowering approach be extended to another group which faces enormous difficulties in exercising its franchise: migrant workers .

Also read | Parties consulted on extending postal ballot to more categories: ECI

The novel coronavirus cataclysm and the subsequent national lockdown brought to centre stage the magnitude of internal migration and hardships that migrant workers endure in their quest for livelihoods. The stark indignity that many of them endured on their long march home suggests that they are perceived as being politically powerless.

Internal migrant workers constitute about 13.9 crore as in the Economic Survey of 2017, that is nearly a third of India’s labour force. They travel across India in search of an economic livelihood, in the construction sector, as domestic work, in brick kilns, mines, transportation, security, agriculture, etc. Many never intend to settle down and wish to return to their native villages and towns once their work is completed or the working season ends. Often they toil in exploitative low-wage jobs, lacking identity and proper living conditions, without access to welfare and unable to exercise their voting rights. Migrant workers become quasi-disenfranchised, forgotten voters because they cannot afford to return home on election day to choose their representatives. The callous attitude toward the plight of migrants exhibited by some State governments leads to the conclusion that this group does not constitute a vote bank worthy of attention.

Internal migrant workers do not enrol as voters in their place of employment since they find proof of residence hard to provide. Many are seasonal migrants who would rather vote in their villages if they could afford to return home. Since they do not have a vote where they work, their concerns are easy to ignore in their host State. Sometimes, they are targeted for allegedly taking jobs away from the local population.

Also read | Congress argues against expansion of postal ballots

Task before the ECI

Ensuring that every Indian who is eligible to vote can do so must be a central mission for the ECI. It is a matter of pride that India currently has over 91.05 crore registered voters and in the 2019 general election, a record 67.4%, i.e., 61.36 crore voters, cast their vote.

The ECI would do well to focus attention on the one-third, a substantial 29.68 crore, who did not cast their vote. National Election Study surveys have shown that about 10% of registered voters refrain from voting due to a lack of interest in politics. That leaves approximately 20 crore voters who want to vote but are unable to do so.

Of these there are about three crore Non Resident Indians (NRIs). Only about one lakh NRIs have registered to vote, presumably because voting requires their physical presence in India. Of them, about 25,000 voted in the 2019 elections. To enable NRIs to exercise their franchise, the government brought in legislation in the previous Lok Sabha to enable voting through authorised proxies. While the legislation lapsed, it is interesting to contrast the concern for NRIs with the lack thereof for poor migrant workers.

Yes, there is a model

Does our system enable any form of voter portability that can serve as a model for re-enfranchising migrant workers? Yes. Service voters (government employees) posted away from home can vote through the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS). Classified service voters (e.g., military personnel) can do so through their proxies. The ECI has said that it is testing an Aadhaar-linked voter-ID based solution to enable electors to cast their votes digitally from anywhere in the country. It will be some time in the future before this becomes a functional reality. While developing this solution, we must ensure that the linkage with Aadhaar does not result in the exclusion of eligible individuals.

Also read | Migrant labourers are the most disenfranchised invisible citizens: political scientist Ashwani Kumar

To facilitate voting by migrant workers, the ECI could undertake substantial outreach measures using the network of District Collectorates. Migrants should be able to physically vote in their city of work based on the address on their existing voter IDs and duration of their temporary stay. In an age where banking transactions have gone online seamlessly, it is technologically feasible to record and transfer votes to their respective constituencies without compromising on the credibility of the election process.

The COVID-19 crisis mobilised governments and non-governmental organisations to set up registers and portals to reach out to migrant workers. A ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ is being ushered in to enable migrant workers and their family members to access Public Distribution System benefits from any fair price shop in the country. Similarly, voting must be viewed not just as a civic duty but as a civic right. We must demonstrate the political will to usher in ‘One Nation One Voter ID,’ to ensure native ballot portability and empower the forgotten migrant voter. Once migrant workers get to exercise their franchise, we expect that we will see a change in how they are treated.

A quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson goes: “We... do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” Ensuring that every Indian voter can participate in elections is imperative to ensure a democratically inclusive India.

C.R. Kesavan is a former member of the Prasar Bharati Board. M.V. Rajeev Gowda is a former Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Congress party’s Research Department

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