Scripting clean polls, via Aadhaar

Free and fair elections form the bedrock of a democracy and clean electoral rolls are a vital part of it. The use of Aadhaar numbers to identify voters will not just make the enrolment process simpler, it will also help avoid the duplication of voter names across constituencies. Having photos printed on the electoral rolls was a step towards making identification easier at the polling station. But even photo ID card is no answer to the problem of duplicate registrationsThe election law is clear that a person can be registered as a voter in a place where he is ordinarily resident. However, thanks to various factors like seasonal migration and relentless urbanisation, people end up being on the electoral rolls of more than one polling booth

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:33 pm IST

Published - October 01, 2015 01:41 am IST

Having photos printed on the electoral rolls was a step towards making identification easier at the polling station. Photo: V. Raju

Having photos printed on the electoral rolls was a step towards making identification easier at the polling station. Photo: V. Raju

The Election Commission (EC) starts its annual revision of electoral rolls throughout the country in September ever year. The exercise becomes more significant for the States going to the polls the following year. Elections are due in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Puducherry in the first half of the next year.

Except in the States where polls are scheduled, the political parties and the voters are generally apathetic to the roll-revision work. In the poll-bound States, however, the political parties can be hyperactive, as happened in Tamil Nadu prior to the > 2006 Assembly elections when party leaders were given targets for registration of voters, leading to allegations of malpractices and, as a result, filing of cases by the EC against some party functionaries.

Multiple enrolments by voters The EC’s efforts to have a clean electoral roll with full enrolment often falters due to a variety of reasons. Relentless urbanisation and inter-and intra-city movements pose a challenge to having an updated and accurate electoral roll in urban areas. A study carried out in Bengaluru prior to the 2008 >Assembly elections in Karnataka revealed that the year-on-year change varied from 6 to 8 per cent.

N. Gopalaswami

In the rural areas, though the Booth Level officer (BLO) system works better in tracking changes, the problems there are of a different kind. The election law is clear that a person can be registered as a voter in a place where he is ordinarily resident. However, thanks to various ‘collateral’ issues, persons who are not ‘ordinarily resident’ at a place continue to be on the electoral rolls. For instance, come election time, there is an exodus from Chennai to the southern districts of Tamil Nadu as people from these areas who have settled in Chennai flock to their respective native places to exercise their franchise.

The duplication due to their enrolment in electoral rolls of both their respective native places and Chennai is an invitation to bogus voting.

In the run up to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in 2007, an intensive checking of rolls revealed many cases of people who had migrated to Mumbai decades earlier but continued to be on the electoral rolls in their native place as, for them, having their names on the electoral rolls was an additional proof for claims on family property.

Prior to the Gujarat elections of 2008, a Member of Parliament from Mumbai had brought to the EC’s notice names of voters found on the electoral rolls both in Mumbai and in a constituency in north Gujarat. The Chief Election Officer (CEO) of Gujarat issued a warning that being listed in more than one place was an offence and his vigilant efforts to prevent any large-scale duplication proved to be a sufficient disincentive, except for a dozen or so voters.

Seasonal migration of labour from Bihar, eastern UP, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh is a well-known phenomenon; some may even stay back much longer as is the case in Jalandhar where, after getting jobs in the textile industry there, migrant agricultural labourers from Bihar have continued their stay. According to a recent report, in Tamil Nadu alone, there is a >labour force comprising nearly 10 lakh people hailing from northern states. They constitute a potential bogus voter pool in their native places.

Duplication of names on electoral rolls is prevalent in places like an urban area and its neighbouring villages as well as in villages on either side of State borders. Recently, a voter proudly told me that he has two >Voter Identity Cards , one with the address of his rural home near Chennai and the other with his city address.

Prior to the 2006 Assembly elections in Kerala, the then CEO found an abnormal increase in the voter population in two constituencies, one in the Palakkad district and the other in the Kasargod district. He traced it to a duplication in registration — the voters had been on the rolls of both the districts and the adjoining areas of Coimbatore and Mangalore. In the Manjeshwar constituency of the Kasargod district, the names of nearly five thousand such bogus voters were struck down, which, incidentally, had been the margin of victory in the previous elections.

For the 2008 Assembly elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Election Commission, fearing a similar occurrence in the border villages, scheduled the polls on the same date in all adjoining constituencies .

Aware of the large-scale migration of labour for Surat’s diamond industry from districts in Saurashtra, the CEO of Gujarat did a name comparison of voters in the Varachha constituency of Surat district — largely inhabited by migrants from Saurashtra — and a couple of constituencies in the districts of their origin, and found out 50,000 potential cases of duplication. An advertisement for voluntary declaration led to only 2,000 disclosures. Appreciating the impossibility of physically verifying the rest of the 48,000 entries, the EC opted to schedule polls in Surat and in the selected districts of Saurashtra on the same day, though they were not contiguous areas.

It was the redoubtable T.N. Seshan, former CEC, who conceived the idea of an Electors Photo Identity Card (EPIC) issued by the Election Commission to contain bogus voting. His diktat of ‘No ID card, No polls’ was opposed by politicians in several poll-bound States, citing a lack of funds. Ultimately peace was brokered under the Supreme Court’s directions and, ever since, photo ID cards have come to be the mainstay in establishing a voter’s identity. However, from time to time, innovative excuses are proffered to prevent their use. In the run-up to the 2007 Punjab Assembly elections, the then Chief Minister sought exemption from production of photo IDs by voters, alleging that the Opposition party was purchasing cards to prevent voting by a section of the population.

Reference point to avoid duplication Having photos printed on the electoral rolls was a step towards making identification easier at the polling station. But even photo ID card is no answer to the problem of duplicate registrations. The photo ID card was designed to have a unique number but there was no way to prevent a second card from being issued to the same person if he/she did not voluntarily disclose information as there was no reliable reference point against which checking could be done. A matching of photos was the only option but it is enormously time-consuming and needs physical verification before coming to a final conclusion. It is here that Aadhaar provides a clean and easy solution.

Since Aadhaar has a reliable backing by way of fingerprint and iris scan for identification, the scope for duplication is next to nil. Further, and more importantly, to verify for duplication, election officials will require >nothing more than an Aadhaar number — not even the fingerprint or iris scan — and, where necessary, will have to query the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) website for just a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer for the authenticity of the number.

The question of a breach of privacy is a complete non-starter in this arrangement. As the role of Aadhaar goes up, the system of an Elector’s Photo Identity Card (EPIC) can be phased out, saving cost. With Aadhaar, it is possible to enrol a person in a polling station/constituency and simultaneously remove his name from a different polling station/constituency, thus avoiding duplication and also making voter enrolment simpler.

The use of Aadhar will have another important advantage. Since, unlike EPICs, Aadhaar cards can be issued to even minors, their incorporation into the electoral roll once they turn 18 will be seamless. This is significant since it is the 18-25 age group that is woefully under-enumerated. If the introduction of EPIC by the EC was a significant step towards preventing impersonation at the polling booth, incorporating Aadhaar will help prevent bogus enrolment and duplication while, at the same time, making updating of electoral rolls easier and far more accurate. The bonus is that Aadhaar has the potential to facilitate e-voting as and when it is embarked upon.

However, a recent Supreme Court order embargoed the use of Aadhaar, except in the cases of Public Distribution System (PDS) and kerosene and cooking gas subsidies.

Periodic elections, conducted in a free and fair manner are the very backbone of an effective democracy and clean electoral rolls form the very foundation for such an exercise. The EC owes it to itself and to the electors to move the Supreme Court to allow an incorporation of Aadhaar numbers into the electoral rolls, considering the tremendous advantages of such a move.

( N. Gopalaswami is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India .)

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