Why the newly introduced postal ballot found few takers in Chennai

TN ELECTIONS 2021: VOTING AT YOUR DOORSTEP

A senior citizen couple cast their vote through postal ballot in Chennai. Pic: Sampath

On April 6th, a humid day, Zaitoon Begum, a 87-year-old resident of Kottivakkam went to the nearby polling station to cast her vote. Presently a Sholinganallur constituent, Zaitoon Begum has been voting for more than six decades now — she voted first at the then Madras Presidency. 

Zaitoon Begum’s polling experience was smooth — social distancing was maintained at the booth, masks and gloves were mandated for all voters. But she is still a little disappointed, having had to visit the polling booth at a time when COVID infections are rising across Chennai. “Given the circumstances, the ballot box should have come to me,” Zaitoon Begum says. 

That’s exactly what the the postal ballot was meant to do. For the first time, the Election Commission of India (ECI) had allowed the postal ballot system for senior citizens (above 80 years), Persons with Disabilities (PWD) and COVID positive patients this year, so that they could vote within the safe boundaries of their homes. Since Zaitoon Begum would have preferred to take that option, her son Ramanujar Moulana visited the Village Administration Office in Palavakkam.

The officer assured them that Zaitoon Begum could indeed use the postal ballot, but nothing came out of it. No document or instructions were delivered. “When the officer’s verbal promises came to nought, I visited the Revenue Inspector’s office in Sholinganallur. The office was locked,” said Ramanujar Moulana. Not wishing to give up, he took one last shot at the Taluk office. “The officials there said my mother was not eligible for the postal ballot. They gave no reason,” he added. 


Read more: 6000 booths, strict COVID protocol, 80-plus to vote at home: District officer shares election plans


A bumpy ride

The postal ballot facility as introduced and outlined by the ECI was meant to be seamless — nothing like what Zaitoon Begum’s family experienced. According to the rules introduced, the Booth Level Officer (BLO) would distribute Form 12D to all households where eligible voters were present, based on the data provided by the Revenue Officer. (No voter was required to follow up with officials or go from one administrative office to another for a form.) If these residences were found to be locked, the BLO would visit them again in five days. Voters who wished to opt for the facility would have to submit the filled forms to the BLO within the date mentioned.

The filled-in forms were then verified by the section officer under the supervision of the Revenue Inspector. A five-member polling team with an authorised Group D level officer, polling official, micro observer (a central govt official), a police official and a videographer then visited these homes on a mutually agreed date to record the mandate of the voter.

While this entire procedure seems hassle-free on paper, the postal ballot system eventually turned out to be something of a damp squib in Chennai this year, due to multitude of reasons. A total of only 7858 voters availed the facility in Chennai. 

Source: District Election Office (GCC). Illustration by Laasya Shekhar

Resistance to change

The data above naturally raises a vital question: why were forms given to such a small proportion of eligible voters? “In many apartment complexes and gateway communities, our BLOs were not allowed to enter. Many houses were locked; some were just not interested to shift to this method of voting,” said a senior officer, in-charge of the postal ballot system. 

It is true that some voters were hestitant to switch to the postal ballot. 93-year-old Kamakshi Subramaniyan, fondly known as Kamakshi Paati to many Chennaiites, went to the polling booth at Besant Nagar to cast her vote. “I did not get the form 12D. Of course, I would have still gone out to vote, as I am afraid that the votes could be easily tampered with under this new system,” Kamakshi Paati said. Confusion and fear prevailed among many voters, who felt that the whole exercise was politically driven.

The possibility of malpractice in the postal ballot system was however summarily rejected by authorities, who cited stringent norms in place. “A Revenue Officer and political representatives checked the ballot every morning and evening to ensure a flawless electoral process,” said the senior officer. 

A section of voters were discouraged by the perception that the postal ballot system would curtail ‘election earnings.’  “I had personally sensitised many senior citizens and PWDs about the postal ballot — how they could vote at their doorstep. A lot of them showed no interest, as they felt they would not then be able to encash their votes from the political parties,” said Anupriya Murugesan, a social worker. 


Read more: Do voters really think of that mixie when they vote?


Procedural lapses

87-year-old Zaitoon Begum casts her vote at Nellai Nadar Higher Secondary School, Kottivakkam. Pic: Ramanujar Moulana

Many deserving and genuine voters such as A Gnanasambandam could not avail the facility because of the way it was administered all along. Wheel-chair bound Gnanasambandam said he did not even know about the postal ballot. “I would have definitely skipped going to the booth, as I don’t like to trouble the volunteers (at the booth) and ask them to help me cast the vote,” he said. 

D Vinod Kumar, a resident of Vasanth apartments, RK Nagarra in Mandaveli, never received the form from the BLO. He would have preferred his 84-year-old mother to vote at home.  These cases reflect a major lapse in communication and data gathering by concerned officials. Press releases about the postal ballot were published in vernacular and English newspapers, and the social media pages of GCC also promoted the postal ballot facility but clearly, that was not enough to dispel the confusion over the process. 

“BLOs who visited the complexes without IDs were not entertained by security personnel and in some cases, the officers did not have the data of senior citizens and PWDs. The end result was that many missed their right to vote through the postal ballot,” said K L Bala Subramaniam of Thiruveedhi Amman Koil Street Residents Association (TAKSRA), RK Nagarra in Mandaveli. “GCC could have teamed up with the Resident Welfare Associations for this exercise. These lapses could have been averted that way. Residents would have known about Form 12 D too,” he added. 

Postal ballot is more like a parallel election process. Ten days before the election day, the GCC formed 70 teams that visited the households of the 7858 electors who did finally exercise the option. “It was a strenuous process that involved a total of 3500 employees,” said a GCC official. In the final analysis, what could have been a landmark event in electoral history ended up being a rather diluted exercise in Chennai. Strong campaigns from the district election office and a change in citizens’ mindset will hopefully make it a success in the next elections. 

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About Laasya Shekhar 263 Articles
Laasya Shekhar is Senior Reporter at Citizen Matters Chennai. She tweets at @plaasya.

3 Comments

  1. Very good article on an important contemporary topic
    which will improve awareness among voters on such novel
    options for voting…In our home my mother who is 82 years
    old had a very smooth postal ballot process on 29th March
    2021 after all the steps mentioned in the article were followed
    …Our area is Madambakkam under Tambaram constituency
    (Chengalpattu district)…I was truly impressed by the dedication
    and efficiency of the polling team and officials👍

  2. There is no penalty or grievance redressal system. Once the election is over everyone irresponsibly goes back to own chores. Only if the PWD/Elderly complain and the errant officials get suspended will such INCOMPETENCE End!!

  3. The process started on 7th March and supposed to end on 16th March. For reasons unknown the process was abruptly closed on 11th itself. Several filled up forms were never collected as the process was stopped midway. It was excellent arrangement for those who managed to submit their preference. GCC could not reach the eligible voters of 80+ as address was only flat number without building name. In some cases only door number of the road and not flat number within the building. For example one building with only 12 apartments has over 100+ voters who don’t live in that building. Building names missing in the voter list as not updated in ECI records. I have evidence for all these. So it is not building security not allowing BLO as claimed in this article.

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