In the May 2016 elections, while Tamil Nadu recorded a polling percent of 73.85%, Chennai recorded only 60.5%. The pattern was similar in other metro cities. It was around 54% in Mumbai (2014) and Bangalore (2015), roughly 12-13% lower than the state average. The media, analyst and activists put the blame on urban citizens. But should we really judge by these figures? And even where turnout is in fact low, what are the real reasons behind the phenomenon?
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The problem of duplicate entries
Vote Smart, a Bangalore based NGO run by PG Bhat, analyzed the electoral rolls using software. They found that 20% (1.7 Million out of 7.8%) could be potentially duplicate entries. 5.5 Lakh voters could be duplicate based on the same name, age and relative name.
Since electoral rolls publicly available do not display the photo, it’s difficult to be entirely sure of duplication, but when you have the same name, age and relative name within the same booth, the entries, more often than not, tend to be duplicate.
In a survey for one booth, the organisation found 15% duplicate entries. 5% of voters who had expired were still on the list. In an urban cluster, normally 20% shift their residence regularly. So it’s reasonable to assume that 25%-30% voters in the electoral list are actually invalid. If indeed this is a common trait across cities, then the voting percentages aired are on the basis of a bloated list and hence far from the real one.
In January 2016, ChennaiNEXT working with many NGOs did a survey on five places in Chennai covering more than 1100 people. The overall picture of errors in electoral rolls here is similar to that of Bangalore. 4.13% entries required deletion and 5.72% required change of constituency.
The survey also found 10% of them to be unregistered voters. In the outskirts of the city, for example in regions like Anakaputhur, the proportion of unregistered voters is only 4.6% whereas in urban gated communities like Vadapalai and Railnagar Padikuppam, it’s as high as 15-23%.
Given the above survey results, efforts to improve voter enrolment is required. One of the primary roles of the election commission is to maintain an accurate electoral lists. There is a huge lacuna in this, particularly in urban regions.
The current commission under Chief Electoral Officer, Mr. Rajesh Lakhani (IAS), directed significant efforts in the right direction to address this. This has improved the website reasonably well and has resulted in the launch of an app to facilitate registration and modification.
The Commission also created a customer care number with 1950 (the year election commission was founded). It has made it possible to obtain a duplicate copy of voter id via Express Post by paying online or in person at the Taluk office. It created notable awareness campaigns and conducted a special voter registration camp three months before the campaign. It also undertook initiatives on accessible polling and video recording of polling booths in Chennai.
Though the steps by the CEO office have constituted a significant start, it requires a lot more sustained efforts to ensure that electoral rolls are rendered accurate. ChennaiNEXT conducted 35 camps in colleges, apartments, offices and enabled 3500+ people directly to apply for voting in Chennai. During this exercise, it was found that many people had applied in person in special camps, but their applications did not reach the Electoral Office. Some of them had even applied multiple times.
The election commission is dependent on the state administration, and on the municipal corporation in urban regions, for collection and validation of applications. In some exceptional cases in Chennai, for example in Mughalivakkam, among the people who came to check the status of their applications submitted in special camps, it was found that only 20% of the application IDs displayed status, indicating that 80% had not even reached the electoral office.
Among the applications received by the electoral office, a part of the applications were not yet validated by the Booth Level Officers (BLO), who are responsible for the same. The BLO play this role in addition to their full time job, for an annual additional compensation of Rs.6000, and are responsible for typically an area covering 300-400 families or 900-1200 voters.
Though it’s mandatory to publish the rolls in English also for metropolitan regions, it was not done so this time. Only English rolls can be subjected to software analysis to evaluate accuracy.
Making enrolment continuous
One of the key problems in enrolment is that though in theory one can apply throughout the year, In practice it is possible only during camps. Even if the application is accepted by the taluk level/corporation offices, these will be processed only along with applications collected after camps.
The Electoral Office of then Andhra Pradesh had initiated a partnership with the Post Office in Hyderabad on a trial basis. This is an experiment worth following up and replicating, to address the fundamental issues in enrolment and making it possible to apply throughout the year.
There are many systemic issues that are primarily responsible for inaccurate electoral rolls and hence result in poor polling percentage. We need to and can collectively work with the system to improve it.