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Insights into Editorial: Thinking before linking

 

Context:

Rajya Sabha passed by voice vote The Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021, enabling “the linking of electoral roll data with the Aadhaar ecosystem” as the Opposition walked out in protest. The Bill had been passed by Lok Sabha earlier.

An unwillingness to allow meaningful debate and invite wider consultation can undo even the progressive aspects of problematic legislation.

Ignoring protests, the Union government has managed to push through a Bill in Parliament to link electoral roll data with the Aadhaar ecosystem.

On the face of it, the Bill’s objective — to purify the rolls and weed out bogus voters — may appear laudable, and the seeding of Aadhaar data with voter identity particulars may seem to be a good way of achieving it.

The Opposition underscored the possible disenfranchisement of legitimate voters unwilling or unable to submit Aadhaar details, the possible violation of privacy, and the possibility that demographic details may be misused for profiling of voters. Each is a valid concern that ought to be considered by a parliamentary committee.

 

Key Features of Election Laws (Amendment) Bill 2021:

  1. The Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 seeks to allow electoral registration officers to seek Aadhaar number of people who want to register as voters.
  2. Eliminating duplication by reauthentication of Voter Id with Aadhar: The Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 seeks to allow the electoral registration officers to ask for Aadhaar numbers from persons already included in the electoral roll for the purposes of-
    1. Authentication of entries in the electoral roll, and
    2. To identify registration of the name of the same person in the electoral roll of more than one constituency or more than once in the same constituency.
    3. This aims to curb the menace of multiple enrolments of the same person in different places.
  3. Voluntary in Nature: Aadhar linking with Voter Id is voluntary in nature and concerned authorities can not deny inclusion in the electoral roll only due to the inability of an individual to furnish or intimate the Aadhaar number.

 

What is the government’s argument for bringing the Bill?

  1. The government says the Bill incorporates various electoral reforms that have been discussed for a long time.
  2. The government says linking Aadhaar with electoral rolls will solve the problem of multiple enrolments of the same person at different places.
  3. Once Aadhaar linkage is achieved, the electoral roll data system will instantly alert the existence of previous registration(s) whenever a person applies for new registration.
  4. This will help in cleaning the electoral roll to a great extent and facilitate elector registration in the location at which they are ‘ordinarily resident’.
  5. A Parliamentary Standing Committee report on demands of grants of the Law Ministry, had said: The Committee has been advocating linkage of unique Aadhaar ID Card number with voter I-card which would streamline alterations in EPIC during change of ordinary residence by the electors.
  6. The incidence of multiple entry could also be eliminated which is required in participative democracy.
  7. In Parliament, Law Minister said linking Aadhaar with the voter ID card “is voluntary. It is not compulsory or mandatory”.

 

Why should there be a problem with identifying names that appear in multiple rolls?

  1. One of the concerns is whether the Bill’s implementation will be successful if the linkage is not compulsory.
  2. The Bill amends the Representation of the People Act, 1950 and the Representation of the People Act, 1951 to implement certain electoral reforms.
  3. The 1950 Act provides that a person may apply to the electoral registration officer for inclusion of their name.
  4. The Bill says the electoral registration officer may require a person to furnish their Aadhaar number for establishing their identity.
  5. If their name is already in the electoral roll, then the Aadhaar number may be required for authentication of entries in the roll, but people will not be denied inclusion in the electoral roll or have their names deleted, if they are unable to show their Aadhaar cards.

 

Are there other concerns?

  1. The Opposition has claimed Aadhaar linkage will enable non-citizens to vote.
  2. Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor said in Lok Sabha, “If you are in a position asking for Aadhaar for voters, all you are getting is a document that reflects residence, not citizenship. You’re potentially giving the vote to non-citizens.”
  3. Others said, “This has also been mentioned in the House, that Nepalis and Bangladeshis will not be allowed to vote and this will ensure that doesn’t happen.
  4. Now here there is a conceptual confusion. Aadhaar is not proof of citizenship and it is said so very clearly in the Aadhaar Act.
  5. We know that voting can only be done by citizens. Experts unable to understand how this will prevent non-citizens from voting because non-citizens can have an Aadhar card. The goal of preventing non-citizens from voting will not be solved with Aadhaar.
  6. Another concern, raised by the CPI(M), is the view that the Bill could violate secrecy of the vote undermining the principle of secret ballots, and the fundamental right to privacy of the voter.

Even though the Aadhaar requirement is said to be voluntary, in practice it can be made mandatory.

The Bill says the election registration officer may require the submission of the Aadhaar number both for new enrolments and those already enrolled.

The choice not to submit is linked to a “sufficient cause”, which will be separately prescribed. Whether the few permissible reasons not to intimate one’s Aadhaar number include an objection on principle is unknown.

If an individual’s refusal to submit the detail is deemed unacceptable, it may result in loss of franchise. Therefore, the measure may fail the test of proportionality.

 

Election Laws (Amendment) Bill 2021- Amending the Representation of People’s Act:

The Election Laws (Amendment) Bill seeks to amend certain sections of the Representation of the People Act, 1950 and 1951. These are-

Amendment to the Representation of People’s Act 1950:

  1. Section 23: It will be amended by the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill 2021 to allow the linking of electoral roll data with the Aadhaar ecosystem.
  2. Section 14: It will be amended by the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill 2021 to allow having four “qualifying” dates for eligible people to register as voters.
  3. As of now, January 1 of every year is the sole qualifying date. Now, the 1st day of January, April, July, and October in a calendar year will be the qualifying dates in relation to the preparation or revision of electoral rolls.

Amendment to Section 20 of the RP Act, 1950 and section 60 of the RP Act, 1951:

  1. These will allow the elections to become gender-neutral for service voters.
  2. It will replace the word “wife” of service voter with the word “spouse” of service voter, making the statutes “gender-neutral”.
  3. This seeks to redress any discrimination against male spouses of women armed services employees.

 

Conclusion:

Critics argued that if the Government really has no ulterior motive in the form of triggering mass deletions from the electoral rolls, it must invite public opinion and allow deeper parliamentary scrutiny before implementing the new provisions that now have the approval of both Houses of Parliament.

An error-free Electoral Roll is sine qua non of free and fair election. However, the Government should come with a comprehensive bill so that proper discussion can happen in the Parliament.