Once linked to Aadhaar, complete voter list accuracy would be ensured and deduplication would be easy
By Shailesh Pathak
Good public policy always listens to good ideas, activists and non-activists. However, sometimes well-meaning activists inadvertently empower those who commit fraud against the poor. An example is the anti-Aadhaar opposition after the Aadhaar Act of 2016, until the Supreme Court’s 1448-page judgment in 2018, calling it an “empowerment” tool for disadvantaged sections of society. Most of these activists may not have realized that their anti-Aadhaar efforts were helping crooks benefit from previous inefficiencies. It hurt the poor who suffered without a universal identification like Aadhaar which is, essentially, nothing more than a unique number linked to his fingerprints and iris scans.
A similar misplaced activism is currently visible against the link between Aadhaar and voter lists (ER or electoral rolls). Much criticism was directed at the Election Photo Identification Cards (EPIC, or Voter Identity Card), when the Election Commission of India (ECI) introduced it in the early 1990s. Objective observers would say that the “false voting” in the voting booths has largely ceased thanks to the EPICs. Similarly, electronic voting machines (EVMs) were heavily condemned, until audit trails from VVPAT systems demonstrated the reliability of EVMs. Today, unscrupulous political candidates, taking advantage of current RE mistakes, would be delighted with such militancy. However, public systems must continue to work to improve processes and outcomes.
One such improvement to the process is the Election Laws (Amendment) Act 2021 passed by Parliament in December 2021. This includes a provision for Voter Registration Officers (EROs) to ask the voter for their Aadhaar number to establish its identity when a request is made for inclusion in the ROEs or authentication of the ROEs. Now that over 131 million Aadhaar numbers have been issued, the entire adult population of India has an Aadhaar, with a few exceptions. However, in the unlikely event that you do not have an Aadhaar, alternative documents may be offered to EROs as proof of identity.
Here are seven ways to improve India’s democratic processes.
Reliability of Voter Lists: ECI elections for Parliament and State Legislatures are based on ROEs for each polling booth. These ROEs often contain errors in voter names and details and do not bear the voter’s full name. Once the ERs are linked to Aadhaar, the complete accuracy of the ERs would be ensured and deduplication would be easy. Paragraphs 375 and 376 of the Supreme Court’s Aadhaar decision refer to the deduplication of PAN numbers after Aadhaar linking. Similar benefits would accrue to REs.
First-Time Voter Registration: For a young adult turning 18, the process of adding their name to the ER can be significantly simplified after Aadhaar’s identity verification, benefiting a crore of citizens every year. Such Aadhaar verification is already performed in many other government departments, including passports and UAN e-Shram numbers.
Migrant Poor Benefit: When moving to a new address, voters must apply for EROs to be included and removed from previous ERs. Poor migrants find this particularly difficult. Thus, most choose not to join the emergencies of their place of work. After linking Aadhaar to EPICs, such additions/removals in ERs would become much simpler.
Political attention to migrants: when migrant labor can easily enroll in new emergencies, local politicians in big cities would be more sensitive to their interests. In the time of Covid, there were several glaring examples of migrants, as non-voters, being second-class citizens to many elected officials.
Delhi-view vs booth-view: All emergency update activities are never done by ECI headquarters in Delhi but by EROs in the tahsils/talukas/blocks of Indian districts. They are always state government officials, with EROs deemed to be delegated to the ECI for this work. Therefore, the constitutional quibbles about the Indian government influencing the CIS if voter ID cards are tied to Aadhaar are specious.
Common electoral lists: Today, separate ROEs are constituted for elections to Parliament and legislatures (and for elections to local bodies). While all of this is done by the EROs at the tahsil/taluka/bloc levels, linking Aadhaar to the ERs would allow for a strong voter list for all elections.
Future-oriented: In 2022, India is expected to make even more improvements to its electoral process. Tomorrow, citizens, especially migrants, may have online options to choose which constituency they wish to vote in, between their permanent address in their country of origin or their current address. Obviously, the first national elections of 1951-52 were not as efficient as the general elections of 2019. ECI has improved the quality of its ER database in recent years. However, Aadhaar’s database of unique identifiers is much more robust than ECI’s ER database.
We know that Aadhaar is not proof of citizenship but is available to all residents. Passports are proof of citizenship and in recent years passports are issued with an Aadhaar link, which greatly simplifies the process, with attendant address checks. Similar improvements would occur for ER updates, again with address verification.
Having conducted all types of elections, one could argue that accurate voters lists are an essential infrastructure for democracy. Today, we English speaking Indians can use “Verify Aadhaar” online to verify the authenticity of people including non English speaking friends. Getting an Aadhaar link with ER would help our non-English speaking citizens immensely. Good ideas should always be listened to.
The author has worked in both the private sector and government
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