The issue has been discussed for a few decades; some commissions have recommended it; a few states have already done it.
The Indian electoral rolls are once again in the news. The government wants to prepare a single roll for national, state and local elections to municipalities and panchayats. Currently, many states have separate rolls. One is maintained by the Central Election Commission (CEC) and used for the Lok Sabha and state assembly elections; the other is maintained by the respective State Election Commissions (SECs) and used for local elections. The issue has been discussed for a few decades; some Commissions have recommended it; a few states have already done it.
In principle, this is a good idea. The problem lies in the details. Electoral rolls of either type are not fully correct. There are errors of commission, when names that should not be there are included; there are errors of omission, where names are missing. It is impossible to estimate this, but pilot field surveys show that in urban areas these errors could be quite large. Both the CEC and SECs are constantly working on removing these errors and some progress has been made.
The recent pandemic has thrown up yet another variable to contend with, the millions of migrants. Where do they vote? Typically, elections are held in the summer when schools are closed. This is also the peak time for seasonal migration, for lack of agricultural work at this time of year. There are a large number of students who study in other cities and towns. There is also a sizeable white-collar urban migrant population, who go to other places for jobs. There has been some discussion of remote voting for all these groups. The administrative arrangements need to be worked out. However, voter ID fraud cannot be ignored, but it is beyond the issue of single electoral rolls.
The stated purpose of this exercise is to hold simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha, state assemblies and local elections. There is some election or the other almost every year in some part of the country, including by-elections, when seats fall vacant on the death of a representative or when s/he defects. Many states do not hold local elections at all for many years. Also, what do we do if a government falls? Several practical, legal and constitutional issues have to be sorted out.
Ignoring all this, the issue of single electoral rolls can still be considered. Most voters are not concerned about it as long as their name is included. Whether they actually vote on the day is another matter. There are two issues that are linked to this. One is the use of technology, especially the biometric ID Aadhaar, or something similar. The other is the CAA and NRC issue. Will people with voter IDs and names on electoral rolls be left out of the NRC register? Or vice versa? Will this end up in courts with aggrieved persons and groups asking for justice? Privacy and data security are also important. The information sits on the cloud and can potentially be hacked. Could an enemy country or some group with vested interests use this to their advantage? We already hear reports of this in other countries.
We also need to ask a simple question. The country is still facing massive health and economic upheavals due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Earlier, we had groups of people protesting for or against the CAA and NRC. In this situation, even if we decide that single voter rolls are worth it, we need to think whether this is the right time. Ironing out all the problems, some of which have been outlined earlier, will take time, money and effort. Implementation glitches may lead to legal challenges or public protests. At a national level, some legal or even constitutional changes may be necessary to persuade states to mandatorily follow a common electoral roll. Simultaneous elections will require political management. Is this the most pressing issue of the day? Aren’t resources of time, money and the government bureaucracy better utilised trying to shepherd the nation out of the biggest crisis we face today?
The article was originally published in India Today.