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No beating about the bush.
If only the Election Commission shows some concern, stops blaming the citizens and start taking responsibilities, we can improve the system of voter records. Court cases and roadshows are no solutions
It is sad that the chief electoral officer of Karnataka (CEO-KA) has published a low voter turnout percentage and armchair political pundits are busy blaming voters for their apathy toward election. Please do not trust the numbers from CEO-KA because the calculation is based on a bloated voter list with fake and duplicate entries.
While taking charge as Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) on 11 June 2012, VS Sampath stated, “A clean electoral roll and hassle free registration are among our highest priorities. Every eligible person shall be on the roll and name of every ineligible person shall be removed. We will engage all outreach methods, voters’ education and technology to achieve these objectives.”
The CEC voiced importance of an efficient and high quality Electoral Roll Management System (ERMS). Unfortunately, this concern remained restricted to his speech alone. His actions (inactions), and those under him, speak differently.
Electoral Rolls of 13 states and union territories (UTs) are published in English, partly or fully. Others are published only in local languages. Due to my limited capability, I have analysed only the rolls published in English, which cover about 10% of Indian voters – a good sample. Most of my comments in this paper are about the state of electoral rolls of 28 constituencies of Bangalore.
Clean electoral rolls
The Election Commission of India (ECI) has defined the schema for electoral rolls. CEO-KA has shown least regards to the data standards. Little care is taken to validate entries by software or by verification process recommended by ECI. As a result, critical personal data in many voter records are wrong – leading to confusion and disenfranchisement. See some examples:
• Polling booth officer did not permit Elsie S Velu (EPIC BCW6606073) to vote. Her sex was recorded as male. Her husband was shown as her father. My neighbour’s deceased father-in-law is shown as her husband.
• Dr Balasubramaniam married Dr Bindu 20 years ago. Her age now is 18 on the rolls!
• We had thousands of people aged 0. After repeated complaints, majority of them became 36 year old one fine day. There are hundreds of voters above 100 years of age.
• It is very common to find errors in names, making it difficult to search at CEO website.
• Data on EPIC do not match the records in electoral rolls.
• Members of a house are distributed across different polling booths.
All such errors lead to confusion and lower voter participation.
Eligible people on the roll
In Karnataka, genuine voters are regularly deleted from the rolls without due diligence required as per ECI regulations.
• CEOs delete lakhs of records without verifying and then expecting the voters to object. • In 2012, CEO Karnataka deleted 13.5 lakh records out of 65 lakh in Bangalore. Reason: these records did not have voters’ photographs because the authorities lost them. In 2013, CEO Maharashtra deleted 50 lakh voters across the state as reported in media. He has defended the action without giving any reason or logic.
• When booths are rationalised (increasing or reducing the number of booths in a constituency and shuffling the voters) lakhs of voters are lost. Last year, Delhi rolls (70 constituencies) lost 14 lakh voters and Andhra Pradesh (AP) rolls (294 constituencies) lost 20 lakh. Both the CEOs have not responded to mails asking if the deletions were verified. Sample survey in Hyderabad has shown that about 25% of these deletions were incorrect. Other would have been correct by chance.
• In Karnataka, due to faulty software and neglect of verification process, thousands of voters are deleted each time a new version of rolls is published – which is about four times a year.
No authority is held accountable for this injustice to citizens.
Ineligible people removed
• Electoral rolls have names of those who have shifted their houses or are dead. In Bengaluru, at HMT Layout, RT Nagar, matadara mitra, an organisation recognised by CEO-KA, submitted 170 names for deletion out of about 600 voters list. No actions. Before the assembly elections in May 2013, once again matadara mitra submitted forms for additional 110 deletions and three additions. No action. The people who reported say that they are frustrated and have stopped interacting with CEO-KA.
• Like in the above example, majority of the voter lists of Bangalore bloat with invalid records.
• Voters are found with addresses of non-existing houses and in commercial properties. Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), which maintains the voter lists for Bangalore, also has access to the details of properties because they collect property tax. They can easily validate many addresses.
• In the list of 78 lakh voters in Bangalore, we find more than 5.5 lakh sets of duplicate records, suggesting verification of 17.5 lakh records, which form these sets. Sample checks in a ward has proved that photographs of suspected duplicates match.
• Delhi has 10.7 sets of duplicate record, requiring verification of 35.4 lakh voters.
• Refreshingly, Kolkata rolls are far superior in all aspects. That city also would have the difficulties of moving population like Delhi and Bangalore have.
A year ago, I shared with the ECI a software that identifies suspected duplicates and can then compare the photographs of the suspected records. This would significantly reduce field work to de-duplicate the rolls. However, a common citizen does not have access to photographs of voters. Though ECI asked CEO-KA and CEO-DL to share with me database dump with photographs of one district each for a pilot project, they both have not shared the data. They have not responded to repeated requests for the data.
Ironically, CEO Karnataka told a news reporter of Citizen Matters that people with duplicate voter records could be imprisoned for two years, but he has not taken any action on them! Surely you are joking, Mr. CEO-KA.
BS Yeddyurappa, former chief minister of Karnataka, had suggested making it compulsory to vote. There are many who repeat that idea even today. When a person has several voter records, whom will you punish? When the addresses in the record are non-existent, how will you reach the ‘guilty’ non-voter? Many of the voters in the list are dead. How will you get them back from graves?
Hassle free registration
Registration has not been smooth in Karnataka. Many applications do not close with inclusion of names in electoral rolls. The Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) do not communicate the application status with the applicant, though required as per ECI directive. Hardly any guideline of ECI is followed in registration or in other operations of EROs.
Online registration has been ineffective in Karnataka. Many people who register online do not get included in the rolls. ERO staff discourages registering online. As a contrast, in Kerala people can register only online. It is effective.
Each booth is expected have a Booth Level Officer (BLO), who should facilitate smooth registration and upkeep of the electoral roll. CEO-KA has recently published a list of BLOs at his website. When we call the phone numbers given in the list, we realise that the data in the document are fake. Many people in the list respond telling that they are not BLOs and do not know anything about the list.
ERMS software used in Karnataka is of very poor quality on several counts and violates basic software engineering guidelines and commonsense. Software requirements are simple and so is the model.
People in ERO staff do not use available computing facilities in their offices to manage the rolls. They work inefficiently and ineffectively with heaps of paper and complain about overwork.
CEOs do not take feedback and offers of help to improve the quality of the system and the processes. They do not respond to mails.
We can hope to improve the system only if the concerned authorities show concern, stop blaming the citizens and start taking responsibilities. They should be held accountable. Court cases and road shows are no solutions.
(Commander (Retd) PG Bhat is a retired naval officer, an educationist and a social worker.)