Disenfranchised by Aadhaar: Voter Deletions in Telangana

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]N December 07, 2018, the day the Telangana assembly elections were held, several voters across the state protested on the streets complaining about their missing names in the electoral rolls. Several political parties and civil society groups had complained about the issue of large scale voter deletions in the state in 2015, some even approached the courts. 2015 is the year the Election Commission launched the National Electoral Rolls Purification and Authentication Programme (NERP-AP) across the country recommending voter identification and Aadhaar linking. By the time Supreme Court stopped the Election Commission from collecting Aadhaar data in August of 2015, there were deletions of 41.53 lakhs voters, while 17.22 lakhs voters were added to rolls in Telangana.


Methodology of Voter Deletions


The reason there were such large scale deletions in Telangana was because the pilot programmes to link Aadhaar with voter id were first carried out in the districts of Nizamabad and Hyderabad in November 2014. Based on the results from these pilot programmes, the Election Commission conducted a national consultation on linking voter id with Aadhaar in Hyderabad in 2015. The Election Commission announced NERP-AP after this consultation and recommended the methodology developed by the Chief Electoral Officer of Telangana & Andhra Pradesh.



The methodology used in Telangana as per documents obtained under the Right to Information show the Election Commission abdicated its responsibility by transferring the voter rolls to a software. The office of the Chief Electoral Officer of Telangana & Andhra Pradesh shared all the voter data along with photographs (biometric data, not usually shared) with the State Resident Data Hub (SRDH) application built by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). SRDH contained 360 degree profiles including caste, religion data of residents in the state and was maintained by private players for the Information Technology departments of the state government. The SRDH application was used to compare voter data with Aadhaar and other government departments beneficiary data to generate the list of potential duplicate voters. This lists was handed over to the Electoral Registration Officers by the Election Commission to be further verified.


Lack of Due Process


The Election Commission has argued the voter deletions in Telangana were genuine and voters had only been removed after due process. The Chief Election Commissioner reportedly even justified these deletions because they used the latest technology to de-duplicate voters. Any information related to this exercise available with the office of Chief Electoral Officer Telangana was denied under the Right to Information. Information obtained from the Election Commission contains several discrepancies which the commission should have noted and corrected in 2015 itself.



In a letter written on August 08, 2015 to the Deputy Election Commissioner, the Chief Electoral Officer of Telangana & Andhra Pradesh complained about the lack of budget and staff to carry out NERP-AP. The letter even states that Block Level Officials may not have conducted proper door to door verification in the limits of Hyderabad. Around 8 lakhs voters were deleted in Hyderabad until the Supreme Court halted the Aadhaar linking of voter ids three days later on 11 August, 2015. In effect the Electoral Registration Officers had not done any verification and had deleted all the potential duplicate voters supplied to them from the State Resident Data Hub maintained by private players, controlled by the government and built by an unconstitutional authority (UIDAI) in 2015.


Algorithms Vs Democracy


There is a crisis at play. The Election Commission has centralised the preparation of electoral rolls in their quest to weed out duplicate voters, using software. The Representation of People’s Act 1950 clearly defines the role of the Electoral Registration Officer (ERO) and the process of making electoral rolls. The ERO is a quasi-judicial authority and is the only one responsible for the maintenance of electoral rolls and is independent of the Election Commission. By pushing software on to every ERO, the commission has replaced a democratic authority with a broken algorithm which is non-transparent.



When EVMs were first used in the elections, the Supreme Court banned them until the Representation of People’s Act was amended to allow their usage. There is an increased usage of technology in governance to facilitate the challenges arising in our democracy, but technology is taking over our democratic procedures in this process and indirectly becoming the law. When code is becoming the law and taking away our rights, how can this code be closed and unaccountable in a democracy?


Read the ECI Algorithm Case.



[Srinivas Kodali is an independent researcher working on data. He is a petitioner against Election Commission in High Court of Hyderabad demanding algorithmic transparency in preparation of electoral rolls.]

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