Linking Aadhaar with electoral rolls – Explained, pointwise

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Introduction

Recently, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have passed the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021. The Bill seeks to amend certain sections of the Representation of the People Act, 1950 and 1951. One of the key provisions of the Bill is linking Aadhaar with the electoral rolls. The Bill fundamentally alter the citizen-State relationship.

The government says the Bill incorporates various electoral reforms that have been discussed for a long time. The government held “many meetings” with the Election Commission before the Bill was brought. But the Opposition walked out in protest due to linking Aadhaar with electoral rolls.

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What are the key provisions in the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 that facilitate linking Aadhaar with electoral rolls?

Linking Aadhaar Card to Voter ID: The 1950 Act provides that a person may apply to the electoral registration officer for inclusion of their name in the electoral roll of a constituency. After verification, if the officer is satisfied that the applicant is entitled to registration, s/he will direct the applicant’s name to be included in the electoral roll.

The Bill adds that the electoral registration officer may require a person to furnish their Aadhaar number for establishing their identity. If their name is already in the electoral roll, then the Aadhaar number may be required for authentication of entries in the roll.

Allowed to furnish other documents: No application for inclusion of name in the electoral roll shall be denied and no entries in the electoral roll shall be deleted for the inability of an individual to furnish Aadhaar number. Such people will be allowed to furnish other alternative documents as may be prescribed.

The government will define sufficient cause for not linking: The reasons on the basis of which one can choose not to link the Aadhaar will be prescribed by the government for ‘sufficient cause’.

Must read: Other provisions of the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021
What has led to the decision for linking Aadhaar with electoral rolls?

National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme (NERPAP), 2015: It is the programme of the Election Commission to link Aadhaar and voter IDs, in a bid to delete duplicated names. Apart from that, the programme also links and authenticates the Electoral Photo Identity Card (EPIC) data of electors with Aadhaar data.

Prior to the launch of the NERPAP, In 2014, the Election Commission of India (ECI) conducted two pilot programmes on linking the voter ID with Aadhaar in the districts of Nizamabad and Hyderabad.

The Supreme Court later held that “the Aadhaar card scheme is purely voluntary, and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this Court one way or the other” and asked the Election Commission to suspend the linking of Aadhaar with electoral rolls. Later, the Election Commission made the process voluntary.

Earlier this year, the ECI wrote to the Law Ministry seeking “expeditious consideration” of pending electoral reforms, including the linkage of Aadhar and voter ID cards.

Recommendation of Parliamentary Standing Committee: In the 105th report of the Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances and Law and Justice, suggested linking Aadhaar with electoral rolls to purify electoral rolls and consequently reduce electoral malpractices.

What are the benefits of linking Aadhaar with electoral rolls?

The government says linking Aadhaar with electoral rolls will solve multiple problems.

 

1. Ensure authentication of entries in the electoral roll, 2. Avoid duplication: People have changed residence many times. So, same names or have got enrolled in new places without deleting/cancelling the previous enrolment. After linking with Aadhaar, the electoral roll data system will instantly identify the registration of the same person in more than one constituency, or more than once in the same constituency, 3. Facilitate elector registration in the location at which they are ‘ordinarily resident’, 4. Eliminate proxies casting their votes using multiple voter IDs, 5. Unlike EPIC, Aadhaar captures biometric data, which is useful in validating uniqueness. 6. All revisions for changes in residence, etc, can be easily done and verified in future. Thereby allowing all citizens to vote freely.

According to government data, most citizens above 18 have Aadhaar numbers, with over 1,260 million cards issued until 31 October 2021. Hence, linking Aadhar with electoral rolls will ease the entire process of registration, verification, changes in residence, rectification in case of errors and omission from the rolls. In future, it will allow voting from anywhere (hopefully electronic voting too), so that people can cast their vote from home or a location of their choice.

Read more: The proposal to link Aadhaar with Voter ID is unconstitutional
What are the concerns associated with linking Aadhaar with electoral rolls?

Challenges with the Aadhaar database: 1. There are instances where fingerprints and even the iris did not match with the Aadhaar database. 2. The Aadhaar data has data quality issues and instances of data breaches. 3. There is no verification of the authenticity of the demographic information on the Aadhaar database. For instance, both the Calcutta High Court and the Allahabad High Court have refused to rely on the authenticity of Aadhaar data. 4. There is no publicly available audit report on Aadhaar data efficiency.

National Economic Survey 2016-17 mentions that the exclusion rates based on Aadhar authentication errors are as high as 49% to as low as 5%. So, linking it with electoral rolls might dilute the sanctity of records in the voter ID database.

Violates fundamental right to privacy: The bill violates the definition of Privacy held by the Supreme Court in Puttaswamy case.

A shift in the burden of proof: Earlier, the government proactively ensured the registration on the electoral rolls (such as through house-to-house verification) to achieve the universal adult franchise. But the burden now shifts to individuals who may be unable/unwilling to link their Aadhaar to justify their retention on the rolls.

Inability to check non-citizens from voting: As mentioned in the Aadhaar Act, Aadhaar is not proof of citizenship. But voting can only be done by citizens. So, demanding Aadhaar for Voter ID will not prevent non-citizens from voting.

Issues with demographic information: Any attempts to link Aadhaar to the voter IDs would lead to demographic information. Critics argue that the government can use voter identity details for “disenfranchising some people and profile the citizens”. Further, It could lay the foundation of targeted political propaganda and commercial exploitation of private sensitive data, which is against the model code of conduct.

For example, In 2018, the chief electoral officer of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh linked Aadhaar data with voter identity cards. According to activists, people found out that at least 5.5 million voters had been disenfranchised. The government later rolled it back.

Note: State Resident Data Hub (SRDH) application of the Government of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh was used to curate electoral rolls. It was supplied by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) or collected further by the State governments. Now, Private parties maintain the SRDH.

Without making it mandatory, the linking will not yield any results: The foresaid government benefits will only happen if furnishing of Aadhaar is mandatory.

Voters might lose their franchise: The government does not define “sufficient cause” for not linking Aadhaar. If an individual’s refusal to submit the detail is deemed “unacceptable”, it may result in loss of franchise.

Conflict of Interest: Maintenance of the voters’ lists is a primary responsibility of the ECI, which is an independent constitutional body. Whereas Aadhaar is a government instrument and UIDAI is under government control. Since the ECI has no control over either enrolment or deduplication in Aadhaar there might be a conflict of interest.

Other issues: The proposal fails to specify the extent of data sharing between the ECI and UIDAI databases, the methods through which consent will be obtained, and does not specify whether the consent can be revoked or not.

What needs to be done?

-There are indeed complaints that some electors may be registered in more than one constituency and that non-citizens have been enrolled, but these issues can be addressed by other identification processes.

-The bill was passed in two days in both the Houses. This undermines the fundamental premise of parliamentary democracy. So, the government must invite public opinion and allow deeper Parliamentary scrutiny before implementing the new provisions. The concerns ought to be considered and suitably addressed by a Parliamentary Committee.

Read more: Parliamentary debates: Significance, issues and the way forward – Explained, pointwise

-The ECI has not shown why traditional verification mechanisms won’t work, or how they can be fixed through technology. So the ECI should first explore alternatives rather than proposing a restrictive law.

If the commission decided to implement the provisions, then the Commission must ensure every electoral roll entry struck off through this new process is independently verified by booth level officers on the ground.

-The govt needs to pass and implement the Data Protection Bill. This could ensure better protection of citizens’ data, addressing privacy concerns associated with linking Aadhaar with electoral rolls.

-The Judiciary must ensure that the right to privacy and a test of proportionality has been fulfilled by the new legislation, especially the provision that links Aadhaar with electoral rolls.

The right to vote is a Constitutional right, and it mustn’t be denied to citizens without rigorous due process and just cause. So, the impending big change to our electoral rolls should be foolproof and abuse-proof.

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