The recent TN Assembly Elections saw the lowest voter turnout in the state in the past three elections. Chennai’s overall voter turnout stood at 59.06%, with only four constituencies registering turnout higher than 60%.
What could explain the low turnout is that many eligible voters chose to sit it out on polling day and also that the inaccuracies in the voter rolls contributed to the issue.
There have been instances of unexplained deletion of names of voters who found themselves unable to exercise their franchise in the assembly elections. Names of entire families who voted as recently as the Lok Sabha elections in 2019 were found to have been deleted. In another instance, the name of just one member was inexplicably removed from the rolls while others continued to be listed under the same address and eligible to vote.
At the other end, recently deceased still had their names listed, as their families had not updated their information when the draft voter rolls were released.
Need for reforms
All this highlights that there is room for reform in the voter roll updation process. The various issues that came to the fore on election day points to the need for better processes to be put in place to clean-up and verify the electoral rolls. While parties have promised that urban local body elections could be held in the coming months and the Lok Sabha elections are due in 2024, there is little reason for the authorities to wait to undertake some changes.
Having worked to this end over the past few as part of a voter roll clean-up and updation effort, leading a group of Resident Welfare Associations, I have gleaned some lessons that could help ease the workload of the election officials.
The following are some suggestions based on door to door surveys, and interaction with residents and election officials in the run up to the Assembly Elections.
1) Post offices in the area could be used effectively to clean up the voter list and update addresses in the system. The postal workers of the area can assist the Booth Level Officers (BLOs) in this process. They can also be roped in to assist on polling day and put on election duty due to their familiarity with residents in their areas.
2) In order to weed out voters who no longer hold a vote in the area, the voter rolls must also have building names in addition to door numbers. With the help of the listed building name, any voters who have moved out may be ascertained more accurately.
3) During the voter roll exercise, we found that several buildings did not appear in the voter list at all. The voters were randomly distributed across other buildings and door numbers, causing much confusion for election officials and voters alike. An enumeration exercise to fix such errors must be undertaken before the next election.
The Election Commission of India could work closely with city planning authorities and as and when building permissions are given; those new door numbers and buildings should get added into their database well in advance so that, as and when voters submit their application for fresh or change of address, it is properly updated with the same name of the building / street name as per official records.
4) Over 50% of voters who had applied for new/reissued Voter ID cards did not receive them, as the postal addresses were incomplete and postal workers were unable to deliver the cards to them. These cards were then returned to the Election Commission’s Area Office.
5) New Voter ID cards are being issued when people apply for minor corrections, because there is no provision for making such changes in the existing card, for example, for adding or changing the building name alone. This adds to the chances of duplication or accidental deletion of names from the voter rolls (as the fresh ID is prepared). The exercise also increases the workload of officials.
6) We also found that names and addresses written originally in English at the time of registration were badly transliterated into Tamil, and then again to strange names in English during the printing of voter IDs. This resulted in confusion among the voters and uncertainty on whether they would be allowed to vote.
7) PDF format in which the voter list can be downloaded is locked, prohibiting search function and copy/paste function, which could otherwise have facilitated easy checks and suggestions for clean-up.
8) The election officials could take the assistance of RWAs in cleaning up the voter rolls in respective buildings
9) Death certificates and death records available with the local body can be used to remove the names of those who have passed away, without anyone needing to apply for removal on their behalf. This could prevent bogus voting and also reduce the burden on families of the deceased.
10) If many residents on the rolls are found to have shifted out, or no longer have a vote in the area, the entire plan for the election exercise needs a rethink; For example, the number of booths could be optimised accordingly, thereby cutting costs.
11) Physical submission of forms at the voter camps has become a cumbersome exercise that results in forms getting lost. The quality of data entry is also very poor. Online applications could be used in such cases to improve accuracy and Aadhaar number could be used to populate missing details, with the consent of voters.
12) Booth Level Officers (BLOs) have been requesting a mobile application for them to approve requests for addition / deletion and corrections. This can be done and the responsibility can be fixed with the BLOs. There should be continuity of BLO at the same location for a minimum period of 5 years, so that they can show the results of their work in the subsequent election.
13) SMS-based slips could be used to replace printed voter slips in urban areas. Those who don’t possess phones can be given printed voter slips.
14) Telecom companies can be roped in by the authorities to help identify the numbers that are no longer in use; this should be cross verified with the voter database to ascertain whether the voter has changed their mobile number or whether they are out of the country, or are no more.
15) Connecting Voter ID with Aadhaar details would also help greatly, as an OTP-based facility to change the address done in Aadhaar would then flag the Voter ID records for change of polling booth and/or constituency if warranted.