With reports that voter information will be used to make priority lists for Covid-19 vaccinations, the importance of voter list reforms becomes all the more apparent as India celebrates its 10th National Voters’ Day on 25 January. A study by Janaagraha, of Booth Level Officers (BLOs), across 21 cities in India found that their workload is the highest in the run up to elections. In Chennai, for example, BLOs noted they receive four times as many calls from citizens ahead of elections as compared to any other time. BLOs across cities indicate that this concentration of workload is a major source of difficulty in executing their duties.
While voting is a fundamental aspect of the quality of a democracy, the voter list itself is an important enabler of citizen participation and engagement. This is not only in terms of elections, but in institutionalising citizens’ participation in municipal functions, including service delivery.
Presently, voter lists for municipal/panchayat elections are prepared by State Election Commissions in some states, while a separate list for State and Union elections is held and prepared by the Election Commission of India (EC). Although many states already work with the EC on just one list, there is a suggestion for one single, common voter list to be the norm across the country. This is a welcome idea since errors on voter lists are rife, particularly in cities. Removing any duplicate efforts in maintaining dual lists should ease the burden on BLOs, who are the foot soldiers of the EC and the only source of on-ground verification and maintenance of voter lists. They face many difficulties doing this job, especially in cities, and in doing so expend a large amount of time and effort outside their daily roles.
However, voter list updating and maintenance cannot be only a periodic exercise. Lists need to be continually updated to ensure accuracy. To ensure this happens, we need improvements in the BLO-style of functioning, by arming them with better digital infrastructure and targeting their intervention more effectively. There should be better electoral roll management software and data standards, service-level benchmarks and audit mechanisms, as well consideration for automatic voter registration.
Need for one common updated voter list
India maintains permanent voter lists with periodic updates, which include annual updates, intensive revisions (where BLOs go door-to-door for verification), or special revisions when inaccuracies are identified. However, there is also a provision for continuous updating, whereby applications for inclusions/deletions/modifications of names in the roll can be submitted at any time — except when elections are in progress. The latter, however, is not well known or utilised, particularly in cities, where migration is extensive.
In addition, with a quarter of a billion-plus population under the voting age (18 years), a significant number of voters need to be added to the electoral rolls every year. India is also experiencing rapid urbanisation, substantially through internal migration, making the case for continuous updating to be more prominent. Up-to-date lists are particularly relevant considering the voter list is useful beyond the right to franchise.
With that in mind, using the polling part as a potential ‘4th tier’ of governance is an important consideration. Particularly in light of the Nagara Raj Bill, which aims to institutionalise citizens’ participation in municipal functions by setting up area sabhas in these smaller geographical units.
Facilitating effective list updation
To facilitate effective and continuous updating, we need to make improvements in the BLO-style of functioning. Networked, hand-held devices, which can be used by BLOs to do on-the-spot voter registration, make updates to existing records, verify registrations, collect biometric data (including photographs), and directly transmit the data into central repositories can be one example of how to arm them with better digital infrastructure. Additionally, technology can allow for geo-coded address location. Global examples of such hand-held devices include Zip-Zip machines used in South Africa for many years which the Electoral Commission there is currently looking to update. This kind of technology can greatly save time and improve data standards with voter information inputted at the source, eliminating the arduous task of entering data from paper-based forms — an activity that BLOs cite as being the cause for multiple errors in the list.
In addition, this technology needs to be pulled together with a push for standardised address nomenclature. This can serve multiple functions, including saving time and improving data standards. BLOs note the lack of proper house numbering as being an issue in performing their duties. This can cause households to be overlooked or others to be included on the wrong lists. But standardisation could ensure greater ease for BLOs in locating households.
Related to this is the geospatial mapping of addresses in polling parts as mentioned above, which can help produce Geographic Information System (GIS) maps of polling parts for BLOs to use, rather than relying on them to hand-draw maps as is the requirement that now very few fulfill. Lack of proper maps is another barrier BLOs face. Meghalaya is an example of a state that has been exploring ways of achieving better delineation of constituency boundaries using GIS technology, as is Bihar’s iBhugoal. Geotagging addresses within such delineated polling parts and Assembly Constituencies (AC) also becomes important in the efficient implementation of Digital Voter IDs. If citizens can update their addresses digitally, the backend system must be primed with addresses that are tagged to polling parts/ACs.
The electoral roll management software that serves as the central repository for all of this information needs to be dynamic, and must be synchronised with other databases that can facilitate automatic voter registration (for those turning 18, for example), or send a trigger when an address is changed elsewhere, or even if new buildings are added in a polling part. Additionally, it can remove duplicate entries on the list through matching techniques. This system can ease the burden on BLOs and other election officials. It can simultaneously serve as a management information system, setting and monitoring service-level benchmarks, which can determine BLO work allocation that can then also be more easily tracked and audited on a continual basis.
More than just a common voter list
The proposed push for one standardised voter list that can be used for all elections is a welcome move. The voter list is an important tool, not only for accessing the right to franchise but also, at the polling parts level, as a vehicle for institutionalising citizens’ participation in municipal functions. Having one list will certainly help to reduce errors, reduce confusion from citizens around registration, and ease the workload on frontline BLO workers.
However, there should be a greater push and recognition of the need for continual updating of the lists, which can be facilitated by improved technology. Hand-held devices for BLOs, which link to a central, dynamic database that can point BLOs more clearly to citizens, households, and tasks year-round, would add considerably to the fidelity of voter lists and, thereby, be a springboard to effective democratic engagement.
The author heads the Research & Insights team at Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, based in Bengaluru. Views are personal.