In January, the Election Commission organised an all-party meet to discuss and demonstrate the Remote Voting Machine that will enable domestic or internal migrants to vote remotely.

This is a welcome move that could enable politically disenfranchised migrants to claim their right to vote without having to travel to their home constituency. There has often been a dichotomy between the access to vote and livelihood for domestic migrant. Remote voting could help break this. It could also redirect political and policy focus towards this neglected segment.

But many questions about the design of such a system remain unanswered. No wonder that The Indian Express reported earlier this week that Election Commission had decided to put the plan on hold as most political parties had opposed it. “...The processes, administrative part, legal part and technological part are works in progress,” Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar told the newspaper. “Everybody has suggested to firm it up first.”

Who is eligible for remote voting?

To determine eligibility, a primary question has to be addressed: who is a domestic migrant? According to the 2011 Census, more than 100 million people migrated to other parts of India in search of better livelihood opportunities.

The dynamics of migration for work are layered. There are two broad categories of workers: long-term or permanent migrants and temporary or seasonal migrants. Long-term migrants include those who remain in a work destination for prolonged periods of time, while temporary migrants oscillate between their source and the destination due to the seasonality of their work.

A nuanced categorisation of domestic migrants may prove to be more useful in increasing electoral participation than definitions on the basis of periodicity of migration or stay in a location, purpose of absence and similar factors.

The Election Commission has rightly stated that migrants at the destination location are not always fully integrated into the electoral processes. It is our understanding that the proposed remote voting system is aimed at temporary or short-term migrants who, as a result of the seasonality in their migration, are often excluded from the electoral processes at both the source and destination constituency.

This group of domestic migrants often has long-lasting relations and greater political legitimacy with their home constituency, and thus will not want to lose their voting rights. It is important to ensure that they are eligible to vote remotely.

Another significant issue is how their eligibility will be established. There is not enough clarity on the documents required for migrant workers to be eligible for registration.

Is it necessary for a worker to have an EPIC – Election Photo Identity Card – or will any other government identity card suffice for registration? This is crucial since migrant workers are often excluded from voter registration drives conducted by the government at the source and destination locations.

Even as most informal migrants lack one or more government-issued identity cards, it is not clear if any document will be required to verify their work status.

While the e-Shram portal is an attempt to create a centralised database of informal sector workers, its extent of coverage among inter-state migrants will have to be examined if it is to be used as a proxy for determining migrant status and eligibility for remote voting registration.

The Election Commission’s database cannot be linked with the Aadhaar database as this could lead to further disenfranchisement of domestic migrant workers due to the implementation loopholes in the Aadhaar biometrically linked identity system.

Informality hinders the effective political inclusion and participation of domestic migrants. The lack of documentation as proof of residence in a destination, furthered by being trapped in mobility-restricting informal work or living arrangements, systemically denies migrant workers access to voting. Thus, the proposed remote voting system should be able to cater to the needs of the domestic migrants embedded in such arrangements.

The eligibility criteria needs flexibility. The Election Commission’s flexible rules for the verification of homeless voters is a good model for remote voting. The booth-level officer could verify that the migrant does reside at the address specified in the form. Once verified, the migrant worker must be allowed to vote remotely from that constituency.

Pre-registration process

The Election Commission had specified that migrant workers will have to register with the returning officer in the home constituency by applying online or offline within a notified time before the elections. But there was no clarity on whether the Election Commission or the government at the destination location would take active measures to facilitate online registration for remote voting. Access to online registration facilities remains limited for migrants.

It will not be feasible for migrant workers to register offline as that will mean travelling all the way to their home constituencies and back. Elections are already a multi-crore affair where a significant part of the funds are spent on transporting migrants back to rural areas from cities.

A better pre-registration procedure will benefit migrant workers and save them time and money. Further, given the high mobility and seasonality of work migration in India, remote voting should be optional, subject to the choice of the voter. This will also mean that the inclusion of a domestic migrant worker in a potential remote voting electoral roll cannot lead to the removal of their name from the electoral roll in their home constituency.

A one-size-fits-all policy?

The remote voting facility should be seen as one of the many strategies needed to ensure the inclusion of all domestic migrants in the electoral processes. The political right, and more importantly, the access to voting is crucial to strengthen a citizen’s claim to the city and more actively bargain for better facilities.

A cruel reminder is the mass exodus of migrant workers from major cities in India during the Covid-19 national lockdown in 2020. Most of them were left with no safety net or support from the government. This was precipitated by the lack of accountability of the destination states for whom migrant workers are not an important political vote bank. This is why the rights of internal migrants, as citizens of the country, to be able to vote in a territorial constituency in which they are temporarily residing is critical.

Voters in Gaya in Bihar in October 2020. Credit: PTI.

Many countries, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic, have been exploring voting models that allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections to have a claim over local urban governance. They provide useful insights on the political integration of long-term migrants at their place of work residence.

In the United Kingdom, a citizen can vote in more than one local election if they live in two different constituencies due to work or study. They can simply enroll in both electoral registers.

Consider how this might work for a circular or seasonal migrant in India. A worker from a village in Rajasthan who migrates to Surat in Gujarat every year for work would be able to vote not only remotely in any election at their home constituency, but also in the local elections in Surat.

Migrant workers tend to live in make-shift housing in the same area every year as long as they continue to migrate. However, because they do not have the right to vote at the destination location, they continue to be excluded from essential local services, such as access to water and healthcare. Political leverage where they work is crucial to allow domestic migrants to stake claim to the city they live in.

The Election Commission has correctly noted that the lack of a central database on migration has restricted policy discussions on the voting rights of domestic migrants. The first Jharkhand Migrant Survey, initiated in January, seeks to map migration patterns of households, is an instructive step towards the possible creation of a unified database for migrant workers.

The systematic enumeration of migration information at the village and city-level is crucial to secure the right and access to citizenship for migrants at the source and destination locations. Many countries are already experimenting with voting models for refugees and undocumented immigrants. Yet, a significant portion of citizens within India are still unable to access the right to vote.

The proposed remote voting facility is a step in the right direction and it is critical for the Election Commission to adopt more flexible voting systems so that the true meaning of voting – which is increased political participation – is upheld for India’s domestic migrant workers.

Niveditha and Swati are researchers at Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit that focuses on providing lasting solutions to socio-legal and economic problems of vulnerable migrant communities in India by blending innovative services with policy, research and advocacy.