Tech Is Helping Ruling Parties Create 'Perfect Electoral Rolls' as the EC Looks on

Recent investigations by news outlets show large-scale voter suppression is afoot at Bengaluru in Karnataka, where assembly elections will be held soon. If the EC is not held accountable now, soon it will be too late.

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Large scale suppression of voters by targeting them and deleting them before elections has become a serious issue. With the Karnataka elections upcoming, there are multiple reports of voters being removed from electoral lists in Bengaluru. There is a weaponisation of electoral systems by using electoral machinery to target people who may not be voting for ruling parties. 

Digitisation, Aadhaar-voter ID linking and lack of transparency in this process has only intensified this problem with no serious measures from Election Commission of India to address them. The News Minute‘s investigation into Chilume Educational Cultural and Rural Development Institute, which was going door to door to collect voter data by using a Memorandum of Understanding with with the civic body Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike has created significant controversy. 

Notably, this group has gone door to door in the areas of Shivajinagar constituency to collect data. This has been acknowledged by the Election Commission which has ordered a 100% re-check of voters in constituencies of 162 Shivajinagar, 169 Chickpet and 174 Mahadevapura in November.  

Even with the Election Commission taking cognisance of the matter as early as November, the new summary revision of electoral rolls in January 2023 still had issues with several voters being removed from the electoral rolls. 

The voter deletions in Shivajinagar constituency are seriously being contested by voters, opposition parties and civil society.

In addition, various political parties and groups have been collecting voter data to micro-target them in preparation of the Karnataka elections. 

The current Congress MLA of Shivajinagar Rizwan Arshad has said that notices to voters were issued only after the electoral rolls were finalised, and that only certain booths were targeted by the office of Chief Electoral Officer of Karnataka.  

To a new observer who is not aware of how the Election Commission, the office of Chief Electoral Officers, Electoral Registration Officers and Booth Level Officers prepare the electoral rolls, this weaponisation of electoral rolls seems impossible. But people who have been keen observers can tell you that the entire election machinery apart from Election Commission and Chief Electoral officers can sometimes appear to be just government bureaucrats facilitating the interests of ruling parties. 

Also read: Bengaluru: A BJP Complaint May Disenfranchise Thousands of Dalits, Muslims

This is not the first time large scale voter deletions have taken place in the recent past, there were several incidents where voters were deleted and targeted using their personal information in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh in the assembly and Lok Sabha elections of 2018 and 2019. 

The Aadhaar-voter ID linking exercise in Telangana has resulted in large scale voter deletions of upto 20 lakh people. In Andhra Pradesh, all of this data has been used by the party in power to target voters, with serious complaints of plans to remove voters from electoral lists using this information

The argument to force new electoral practices to replace the existing setup of electoral roll management has only backfired on the electorate. The constant excuse of using technology to remove duplicate voters and create 100% perfect electoral rolls has made this entire process opaque and prone to manipulation of the system by dominant political actors. 

Despite these problems that have occurred in multiple states, the Election Commission has never really addressed the problems of micro-targeting in elections and voter deletions. The Election Commission continues to push Aadhaar-voter ID linking without addressing these issues. In fact, it went ahead to give itself a clean chit every time and ignored the problems on the ground.

People can argue it is not the job of the Election Commission to address privacy violations that are arising because of data collections by political parties – as it is not a privacy regulator. But it is important to acknowledge that it is still the regulator of elections and must intervene to address challenges that are emerging with an extended market of election consultants, data brokers, and pay for hire hackers who are meddling in elections. 

In fact I would argue the Election Commission never made an attempt to understand the role of privacy in electoral management.

As far as the issue of Cambridge Analytica goes, the Election Commission chose to stay quiet and did not even appoint a committee to look into these challenges or address them. It chose to ignore our fundamental right to privacy to push interests of various actors in promoting the Aadhaar-voter ID linking process. 

Even now if we as the electorate do not take this issue seriously and do not hold the Election Commission and its agents accountable, there is no future for free and fair elections in this country. To people who continue to blindly trust the Election Commission, all I have to say is bring proof to support your case, while voters are being dangerously targeted and suppressed. 

Srinivas Kodali is a researcher on digitisation and hacktivist.