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Article in The Economic Times
Authored by Dr.Jayaprakash Narayan


National Coordinator of
VOTEINDIA movement

The little things we can do, but won't
04 May 2004

AS two phases of the Lok Sabha election are completed, already one thing is certain. No matter which alliance 'wins', millions of citizens have lost.
Once again news media are full of depressing and predictable reports of lakhs of eligible voters possessing voter identity cards issued by the Election Commission (EC) being denied the right to vote on the polling day as their names do not appear in electoral rolls!

Sadly, this has been a familiar story for decades. What is new is the sense of outrage felt this time around by the citizens. The introduction of voter identity cards, the heightened interest of the middle classes in voting, and the proliferation of TV news channels instantly reaching millions of viewers have dramatically highlighted voter registration defects this time.


In 1999-2000 the Lok Satta Movement conducted a large sample survey covering 57 polling stations in 23 districts in AP, with a sample size of 40,399 voters enrolled. Volunteers visited every household in the localities of the selected polling stations and verified the accuracy of voter registration. This study revealed an appalling picture, hitherto undiscovered. In rural areas, 10.34% of the names entered in the voters' list were found to be wrongful inclusions requiring deletion on account of death, migration or other reasons.

Also a large number of eligible persons residing in the area, constituting 4.7% of the registered voters, were not registered as voters. Note that while the total errors of commission and omission are over 15% of the registered voters, the net error would appear to be 5.6% (10.3% deletions required, less 4.7% additions required). In urban areas, the errors were even more egregious - 26% of the names on electoral rolls needed to be deleted, whereas 19% needed to be registered as voters. Again the magnitude of distortion is masked by the net picture: overall, there is only an excess of 7% names! Other studies confirmed a similar disturbing pattern in other states.

The current registration has a major flaw. It is the state machinery which sets the time and place of registration. The citizen does not initiate the voter registration process, and people have no knowledge of procedures, or easy access to voter lists.

If Ramayya, a farm worker, wants to know whether his name is enrolled, and if not, he wishes to register as a voter, he has to go through the following steps. First he has to go to tehsil/mandal office, seek information about the part number (of his polling station), fee to be paid, and the head of account to which it should be remitted. Then go to the nearest sub-treasury and pay the amount by challan and go back to his mandal office and ask for the voters' list. He must then verify the name, and if it is not included, ask for two copies of Form 6, apply in duplicate and wait for the electoral registration officer (ERO) to publish it on the notice board calling for objections. The ERO will then hear objections and include the name if all is in order.

Even a cursory glance at these procedures makes one breathless! And Ramayya cannot apply for inclusion of others' names. They all must individually submit applications! No wonder, voter registration is in a mess. In fact, it is a miracle that so many of us are able to vote!

Clearly, bureaucratic solutions cannot provide answers. We need to involve citizens on a permanent basis. Make voter registration accessible, simple, transparent, citizen-friendly, and fair. Make the neighbourhood post office the nodal agency for voter registration.

We have about 250,000 post offices all over India, which function efficiently and are easily accessible. Moreover, the post office is the only public institution which is approached by ordinary citizens without fear or anxiety! If voter rolls are available locally for perusal or purchase, and the post office is made the nodal agency for voter registration and correction of defects, there will be a dramatic improvement. Using post offices for voter registration is not something that is radically new. It is a time-tested model. For example, in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Hong Kong, the post office is effectively used for voter registration. Even in Kerala the postal network was used for verification of electoral rolls and it met with great success.

If the answer is simple, why can't we change things? For five years the Lok Satta has been urging the EC and postal authorities to act. After mountains of paper work, the EC and postal officials were convinced. But the matter was stalled for long because they were both debating who should write to whom first! Finally, after much persuasion, they met and decided in principle to make post office the nodal agency for voter registration. But this is yet to be implemented. Meanwhile, all this pressure led to some improvements. The EC directed that voter lists should be read out in gram sabhas and ward sabhas, and applications collected locally. In AP alone 6.45 million names were deleted, and 2.52 million new voters were registered, making it a record 8.97 million corrections in just one state!

This latest voting fiasco must open our eyes to the easily remediable flaws in our electoral process. Making the post office the nodal agency for voter registration on a permanent basis, with easy access to electoral rolls to all citizens in the locality is a simple, elegant, inexpensive, citizen-friendly solution. Any error of registration by the post office can be corrected on appeal. This improvement can be effected by the EC itself, and no change of law is required. The postal department can raise revenues by selling voters' lists and individual voter slips and by collecting a small fee for each correction incorporated. The EC can compensate post offices for their services during the revision of rolls.

We have grown accustomed to blaming politicians for everything that is wrong. But there are many things our constitutional authorities can do with vigour and dynamism. Somehow, much of our public discourse is focused on grandstanding, ignoring small, but vital improvements. Between the little things we won't do, and the big things we cannot do, we often end up doing nothing! Is it too much to ask the EC and postal authorities to act swiftly, and solve this simple problem?




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