Mystery of the Missing Voters and The Programme to 'Purify' and Authenticate Our Electoral Rolls

The official stand of the Election Commission is that it is not possible for a voter’s name to disappear from the electoral roll; at least not without his knowledge

Voters queue up outside a polling station during the Delhi assembly elections, 8 February 2020
Voters queue up outside a polling station during the Delhi assembly elections, 8 February 2020

Aas Mohammed

Ahead of the assembly election in Gujarat in December last year, there were reports that the Election Commission had roped in some 200 companies in the state to ensure higher voter turnout. The companies, the reports held, had agreed to ‘name and shame’ voters who fail to exercise their franchise. Nothing was reported on the initiative thereafter but the poll percentage fell sharply, by as much as 8-10 per cent in the first phase itself.

Ironically, around the same time videos began to circulate from Uttar Pradesh in which voters complained that they were unable to exercise their franchise because they were told their names were missing from the voters’ list. They had cast votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha election at the same booth, they claimed, and had been living in the same house and at the same place. Why were their names missing now, they asked. There were no answers from the Election Commission.

During the municipal election in Delhi, again in December, Anil Kumar, president of the Delhi Congress Committee, failed to cast his vote. His name was also missing from the voters’ list. As he took to social media to report this, right-wing trolls had a field day, mocking the Congress party for failing to ensure the inclusion of its own PCC chief in the electoral rolls.

He was not alone, though. From Rampur in Uttar Pradesh to Bengaluru in Karnataka, there were complaints that despite having a valid voter identity card issued by the Election Commission of India and other documents proving identity, such as Aadhaar, they were turned away from polling booths. Their names were not there, they were told.

AAP legislator from Karol Bagh in Delhi, Vishesh Ravi, alleged that an entire polling booth numbered 118 had disappeared from ward no. 82. There were 668 voters in polling booth number 118, who could not cast their vote, he claimed, as per media reports. While State Election Commissions conduct the municipal polls, they use electoral rolls issued to them by the Election Commission of India.

The official stand of the Election Commission is that it is not possible for a voter’s name to disappear from the electoral roll; at least not without his knowledge. Names can be deleted only if the voter is dead or has moved from the address or because of duplication of names. In Bengaluru a SEC official claimed the Election Commission was using a software to detect voters with similar names and facial resemblance. The EC may have deleted some names because they figured in more than one booth or constituency, he speculated.

The ECI has also laid down procedures on steps to be followed before names are deleted. One of the steps provides for the booth level officer (BLO) to visit the address and verify if the voter has moved or died. Without the BLO’s knowledge and approval, it is not possible for names to disappear from the voters’ list. Some or many of the BLOs do not seem to be physically verifying the information before revision of the voters’ lists.

Whether it is a coincidence or not, Muslims seem to be disproportionately affected by the deletion of names. The RLD legislator from Mirapur in Muzaffarnagar (UP), Chandan Singh Chauhan, admits that on the polling day he had received hundreds of similar complaints on phone from voters. He suspects no fewer than 5000 eligible voters in his constituency were denied right to exercise their franchise. He too conceded that most of the complainants were Muslims.

Rashid Quraishi (40) from Mirapur also failed to cast his vote. His own and his father’s names were missing from the list though both had cast their votes in the general election in 2019. Other members of the family were listed but names of the two had mysteriously been deleted from booth no. 282 (Mirapur assembly segment). Both had exercised their franchise in the 2017 assembly election and their address had remained unchanged.

Ejaz Ahmed, BLO at booth number 282, pleaded ignorance. He had apprised senior officials of the complaints received. He himself had verified that 32 voters, whose names were missing from the list at the booth, were indeed alive and continued to live at the same address.

“The previous BLO, who had endorsed the deletion, would be able to explain why the names were dropped,” he pleaded. Perhaps their names will be restored in 2024 or in 2027, he added hopefully.

The Election Commission of India initiated in 2015 a ‘purification’ programme to weed out bogus and duplicate voters. It was called the National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication (NERPAP) programme. A software was reportedly used to weed out voters using Aadhaar. While the Supreme Court had stayed the exercise the same year, the damage had been done and it was claimed that names of a million and odd voters were deleted in Telangana ahead of the 2018 assembly election.

Since then the Election Commission has launched an aggressive campaign to link voters’ identity cards with Aadhaar. While officially this remains a ‘voluntary’ exercise, the Booth Level Officers visiting homes, according to several reports, are insisting that to link EPIC (Elector’s Photo Identity Card) with Aadhaar is mandatory.

Most states have collected the data and seeding the data has been going on since August. Maharashtra claimed this week to have completed seeding Aadhaar links to 43 per cent of the electors in the last five months. It is waiting for instructions before deleting ‘duplicate’ voters, officials were quoted as saying.

Arrest of ‘fake’ booth level officers in Bengaluru has added another twist to the tale. These agents hired by an NGO carried fake identity cards and visited localities and homes to collect Aadhaar data of voters. Once the racket was exposed and the impersonators arrested in November, hundreds of voters from areas visited by them found their names missing from the electoral rolls.

While the Election Commission remains tight-lipped on the missing voters, error-prone software and impersonating booth level officers, there is growing suspicion that the process to purify voters’ lists is far from being poor.

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