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.
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.
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.
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.