In the last few days, a new controversy has dominated Kerala’s political circles–that of lakhs of fake voters in the state’s voters’ list. Armed with details from each constituency, Leader of Opposition in the Assembly Ramesh Chennithala alleged that bogus voters have been seen in every constituency across the state.
In some cases, the same voter appears on multiple lists, while in other cases the names are bogus. According to the Congress, there are between 2 and 4 lakh such names in the 140 Assembly constituencies in the state. Ramesh Chennithala has approached the High Court seeking immediate intervention in the fraudulent voters' list, even as the state will go to polls on April 6. The Congress has placed the blame squarely on the Election Commission and called it a conspiracy. While the Election Commission has acknowledged that there is an issue, it is unclear if these lists will be rectified by the time the state goes to polls.
In an interview to TNM, Chief Electoral Officer Teeka Ram Meena said multiple entries exist in voters lists across the country mostly because of illiteracy around the electoral process. He added that they would probe if there was any organised manipulation.
Meena says a preliminary inquiry done by the district collectors had found that there are duplicate entries and a detailed probe is on.
The Opposition leader has said that there have been lakhs of multiple entries and discrepancies?
Yes, this happened after January 2021. Seven lakh got entered into the list of which physical verification of all was not done by local level officers. Even if we verified it, we wouldn’t have been able to remove multiple entries, as elections were announced when the process was progressing. If elections hadn’t been declared by then, we would have begun the removal, it's a continuous process. By that time, the Opposition leader, with the help of some software engineers, found the discrepancies and declared that he had made the discovery. But it is not so.
We may not be able to remove all multiple entries before elections but will make sure that people don't vote in two constituencies
Didn’t the issue get sudden attention after the Opposition leader raised the allegation?
No, that’s not so. As I have told you, crores of multiple entries were found in 2019 and the EC had said to purify the voters’ list. The EC had detected 64 lakh multiple entries in January 2019 in Kerala alone, and we removed 63 lakh before and after the elections. This is a continuing process, new things pop up. By January 2021 we brought it down to 5000- 6000.
But from January 20 to March 9, 2021, nine lakh applications were filed by people, those who didn't have their names or those who didn't check that their names were there or not on the list. This happened because some of the names were not on the list for the local body polls (held in December 2020). But the list for the local body polls is different (prepared by the State Election Commission).
People applied to add their names thinking that their names wouldn’t be there in the list for the Assembly elections, as well. We got nine lakh applications in a month-and-a-half. Of these seven lakh applications couldn't be verified because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And also the EC directed us to focus on fresh applications, as no voter should be excluded from the list.
Multiple entries doesn’t mean it’s a bogus vote. Bogus votes are those cast at the polling booths. Now the priority is to prevent bogus votes. A mechanism will be in place for this.
Is it possible to prevent bogus votes in the elections?
It's absolutely possible, there is no doubt about it. Also, we will ensure that not a single bogus vote is cast.
Could you elaborate?
We have a mechanism in place. We have issued guidelines to district collectors. We have also prepared a booth-wise list for the polling officers, which will be given to political parties too, so that they can help us in identifying bogus voters.
There shall be thorough scrutiny of the electoral rolls across all 140 local assembly constituencies in the state. The district electoral officers will put in special teams headed by Electoral Registration Officers or EROS.
The scrutiny can be done at various levels: conducting a software-based matching of electors' personal details such as name, relation type, relation name, gender, date of birth, the exact age, or one year plus or minus etc.
Also, an ERO can use the Demographically Similar Entries (DSE) -logical error facility available in the ERO-NET and sort them into three categories - match, not match, and doubtful.
After running the electoral rolls through the DSE and logical error options available in the ERO-NET software, multiple entries that show up have to be recorded and a booth-wise multiple entries voters be prepared.
This booth list has to be immediately shared with the BLOs (block-level officers) and field verification is done, something that can be done simultaneously when the BLOs go out to give the voter information slips. Based on this list, the voter has to be informed clearly that she/ he can cast the vote only once as per existing rules. Any violation will lead to penal action against them. BLOs shall not hand over the voter information slip to any other person.
On the polling day, presiding officers may put a mark on the duplicate voters list given to them to prevent a person from voting twice and follow the same procedure prescribed for ASD (Absent, Shift, Dead) voters in the presiding officer handbook.
Has such mass numbers of multiple/double entries in the voters’ list been reported before?
Yes. This is where the political parties, media, and public are committing mistakes. There is a need to understand the whole thing first. People have a notion that this is happening for the first time, but it's not like that. See, the Election Commission (EC) took a decision in 2019 to remove the multiple entries across the country with a software called ERO-Net, through which the process of electoral registration takes place.
With this, the EC had found that crores of multiple entries (demographically similar entries), in the country, in the state lists in 2019. There are many reasons for this kind of discrepancy in the voters' list. One is, people would apply for a new election identity card when they changed their address, without disclosing the ID number they already have. The voters while applying for a new identity card should make sure to remove the existing one against their name through Form Number 7. There is electoral process illiteracy. Ordinary people are still unaware of the application process, despite the EC trying to educate people and political party workers. If they don't get the card in time after applying for it, people sometimes apply again.
Do political parties have any role to play when it comes to these multiple entries, to add more voters to their side?
We aren’t sure of that. We are conducting an inquiry in that direction too, to find out if anyone has done it intentionally. Maybe there are such cases, but not on a large scale. Political workers at the local level sometimes do this, but that is a very negligible number. There is no organised manipulation, that is not possible.
The number of multiple entries varies for different states, right?
In Tamil Nadu, it must be one crore. In bigger states, it must be more. Kerala is better compared to many other states.