A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed against the Election Commission of India has alleged that names of voters in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh were deleted without following due process. Srinivas Kodali, the petitioner, has based his submission to the Hyderabad High Court on figures obtained through a software used by the EC that prevents duplication of names. He is now is asking the EC to publicly release that algorithm used to identify duplicate voters from state electoral rolls.
The issue of voter deletion has become a political plank for parties contesting assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh. The petitioner, as well as many political parties in the past, have alleged that the deletions that took place in 2015 in Telangana led to lakhs of voters being unable to cast their vote in the December 2018 state elections.
In their counter affidavit, the Telangana Election Commission denied all statements, averments, allegations and submissions made by the petitioner. The Telangana EC claimed that due process was followed before voters were deleted from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh electoral rolls in 2015. The PIL also claims that voters’ Aadhaar numbers were collected without their consent, but the EC has denied this. However, documents obtained through RTI from the Election Commission of India (ECI) say otherwise, the PIL notes.
A software without an algorithm
The PIL questions the constitutional validity of the use of software to identify and allegedly delete duplicate votes. The task of identifying and deleting duplicate votes is to be done by Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) and using software to do the job has no legal backing, argues the petitioner.
But the Telangana EC has told the High Court that their software is only a database and that it lacks any decision-making capacity. The EC says the software only provides data to the EROs for maintaining records and that there is no algorithm used in the software.
The EC says the software only identifies similar entries having similar demographic details. These similar entries are what the software picks up as duplicates.
According to the EC, these duplicates arose during digitizing of electoral rolls by data entry operators making typographical errors. The other times duplicate votes are created in the electoral rolls when people shift their residence, claims the EC.
Voter Aadhaar data
In 2015, the ECI undertook the National Electoral Rolls Purification and Authentication Programme (NERPAP), an exercise meant to purify electoral rolls in the country by linking Aadhaar numbers with voter IDs. The exercise that began in March was ended by a Supreme Court order in August that same year. By then the process was 76.22% complete in Andhra Pradesh and 84.45% in Telangana (expect GHMC areas).
According to the PIL, the EC had reached out to the Registrar General of India (RGI) for access to the Aadhaar data seeded with the National Population Register (NPR) for which they got a positive response. There are also various internal documents of the ECI obtained through RTI by the petition suggesting that the Aadhaar data collected by the EC from the RGI was without consent from the Aadhaar holder.
The petitioner claims that while the software is used to identify potential duplicates, Aadhaar data collected without consent was used to verify whether those duplicates were genuine or not.
In its counter affidavit to the Hyderabad court, the EC also strongly denied collecting Aadhaar data without consent during NERPAP in 2015 for electoral roll purification. The EC has told the court that Aadhaar numbers were collected through the electors with their consent during the door to door verification by BLOs and also through NVSP portals, SMS and call centers.
However, in a letter to the ECI in March 2015, the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh Election Commissions had sought access to the Aadhaar database using tools provided by the UIDAI. The Commission even managed to gain access through a signed agreement in July 2015 with the UIDAI.
Documents also show that the EC had used Aadhaar data obtained from the State Resident Data Hub (SRDH) of the Telangana government to link it with voter IDs in the state, according to the PIL.
Various state ECs had sought the web Application Programming Interface (API) from the UIDAI for DBT Seeding Data Viewer (DSDV) services, that would allow the state commissions to view demographic details and a photograph of the Aadhaar holder from the UIDAI's database. The ECs wanted access to the Aadhaar database as they could get the linking "completed at the earliest," according to documents accessed by TNM.
Allegation against EROs
The Commission told the court that due process was followed before voters were deleted. “The contention that Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) deleted the duplicates as identified by the software without following due procedure is only apprehension and is imaginative, a vague sweeping statement without any specific cases.”
The EC also denied the allegation that the EROs in Andhra Pradesh deleted a huge number of voters in 2015 solely based on numbers thrown up by software.
However in a letter by the former Chief Electoral Officer Bhanwar Lal to the ECI in August 2015, the official wrote saying that there was poor progress of the NERPAP programme in the GHMC area in Hyderabad as the door to door verification was not conducted properly by the Boot Level Officers (BLOs).
The official wrote, “There are many complaints stating that BLOs have not visited their houses, in GHMC area whereas there is not even a single complaint from remaining 9 districts falling outside of GHMC area in Telangana state.”
During a hearing on Monday, the High Court dismissed an interim application seeking Telangana and AP governments delete all voter data received from the ECI and the state Election Commission. However, other parts of the petition have not yet been heard, including a plea to reveal the source code and algorithm of the EC’s software as well as whether the use of the software in the election process is constitutionally valid.