The discourse on electoral reforms in India is dominated by campaign financing and criminal antecedents of candidates on the one hand, and by voter turnout or voter apathy on the other. However, voter registration and voter list management systems, both of which have a direct bearing on voter turnout, have not received the required attention. Voter lists are the gateway to an eligible voter’s ability to vote, a statutory right in a democracy. Reforms to voter registration systems and voter list management begin with a simple question. Are our voter lists accurate?

The complexity begins with the fact that there is insufficient data to answer this question. There are two broad categories of errors that can manifest in voter lists. First, eligible voters are not on voter lists or are registered with errors that do not permit them to vote. Second, dead and other ineligible voters are on the voter list.

Eligible voters are not on voter lists either because they are apathetic or because voter registration systems are cumbersome and opaque. A study conducted by Janaagraha, in advance of the 2015 Delhi assembly elections suggested that around 8% (1.1. million) of the city’s eligible voters were not on the list despite having applied. Seven per cent of eligible voters (0.9 million) did not apply and a third of those cited lack of information as the reason. The Election Commission needs to leverage technology to explore automatic voter registration processes and to make voter registration simpler.

Automating the process

Automatic voter registration processes linked to databases such as birth records, driver’s licences, gas connections or postal records may encourage a greater number of eligible voters to come out and vote (by virtue of being automatically registered). They would certainly make voter list management more efficient (in terms of workforce, cost and time) and effective (in terms of completeness). A recent move of the Election Commission to link the server of the Registrar of births and deaths with its own to automatically delete names of dead voters is a welcome step. In the United States, automatic voter registration is gaining momentum. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that in the US, bills for automatic registration have been introduced in 18 states.

Simplifying voter registration will benefit voters, the Election Commission and municipalities. Today, voter registration forms are handled by municipal offices that are already thinly staffed and underperforming. Campaigns for voter enrolment are usually run once a year by part-time and underpaid Booth Level Officers (generally one for every 1,200 voters) drawn from government schools or offices. Section 21 of the Representation of People’s Act voter lists to be updated only before elections and annual updation at the discretion of the Election Commission. This acts as a disincentive to Booth Level Officers and municipal staff to accept and process forms during the rest of the year. Further, the feet-on-the-street Block Level Officer model is neither scalable nor efficient.

The Representation of People’s Act needs to be amended to make way for continuous updating of voter lists and the voter registration system has to be automated to a far greater degree. This would help deal with rapid urbanisation and to ensure migrants are not deprived of their vote. For example, GIS-based maps at a constituency- or sub-constituency-level at the back end, and use of handheld devices at the front end, combined with technology-driven automatic voter registration processes would be more accurate and more efficient (in terms of both time and cost).

Moving home

The second type of voter list errors, that of ineligible voters (including dead voters) being present on voter lists will likely halve if voter lists are maintained at a constituency-level (rather than at a polling part level, a polling part being a unit of around 1,200 voters) and voters have the flexibility to vote anywhere within their constituency of residence. Our study in Delhi revealed that over 53% of voters who had shifted residence (and therefore appeared as errors) did so within the same Assembly constituency. All of them would have had to get their names deleted from one voter list and added to another. The Election Commission should maintain constituency-level rather than polling booth-level voter lists and permit voting in any polling booth within a constituency. This is easier said than done, but needs to be actively explored. Ineligible and dead voter names also raise questions on possibility of phantom voting (besides understating voter turnout), though this is hard to prove. Hourly voting data in polling booths would be a good metric for the Election Commission to track and publish to gain and give assurance on this.

The first milestone in the reform roadmap is for the Election Commission to quantitatively measure and publish the accuracy of voter lists periodically. The Election Commission then needs to set itself and Booth Level Officers quantitative targets to improve the accuracy. The second milestone is to publish voter lists and Booth Level Officers' performance in open data formats. Today voter lists are published in PDFs, many times in the vernacular. The voter list for Delhi therefore is available as 11,000 different PDF files. These milestones need to be followed up with serious exploration of four policy reforms: automatic (perhaps even mandatory) voter registration, continuous updating, technology upgradation to ease voter registration and to facilitate flexible voting within a constituency, and service level guarantees to applicants.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, both Democratic Party contenders for the US presidential elections have explicitly lent support to universal automatic voter registration, albeit in different ways. The voter list reform agenda is on the radar of political leadership at the highest levels there. In India, it is a cause waiting for leadership. The Aadhar model of combining private sector expertise and technology with political and administrative leadership to achieve large-scale change could be emulated. This is a great opportunity for the Election Commission to yet again demonstrate thought-leadership backed by action in strengthening electoral processes.

Srikanth Viswanathan is the Coordinator, Advocacy and Reforms, at the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. Vivek Anandan Nair provided research support for this article.