Electoral Roll Reforms

Here is the text of my keynote address in a National Conference on Electoral Reforms held at Sri Vivekananda Law College, Puttur, on 19 Jan 2013.

Honorable Justice Shivaraj Patil, Capt Ganesh Karnik, Sri Rangamurthy, Sri KR Acahrya,  other dignitaries, guests, Principal, teachers, staff, and students of Sri Vivekananda Law College,

I thank the organizers for giving me this opportunity of being here on the happy occasion of Silver Jubilee of the institute. I heartily congratulate the management and staff of the institute for their achievements and wish them great success in future too. I feel honored to be with this august crowd.

Today’s seminar on Electoral Reforms is very meaningful for a country with government by the people.

Static systems decay. Meaningful and efficient systems evolve continuously, responding to user needs.

Over the last sixty years, our Electoral system has acquired many bad features. Political parties select candidates on the basis of religion, caste and local influence, named as “winnability” factor. The system permits people with criminal cases and other heinous charges to contest elections. They win with money and muscle power. We thus have more than 30% of MPs of this kind. Parties and candidates violate EC directives on election expenses and other unethical and illegal practices.

Lance Armstrong had won the Tour de France a record seven consecutive times. In 2012 he was disqualified from all his results since August 1998 for using and distributing performance-enhancing drugs and banned from professional cycling for life. When politicians in our country are let out from prisons on bail, they get hero’s welcome; they are garlanded and paraded. They win the next election with record margins. If a bureaucrat is caught for malpractice in his job, he often is transferred with promotion.

Our election system is “first past the post” or simple majority. In 2004 assembly election the winning candidate from Santhemaranahalli defeated his nearest rival by just one vote. With large number of candidates contesting, very few get more than 50% of the polled votes. This does not create a representative character to legislature.

Only 43 (22%) of the 193 countries of the United Nations practice simple majority system. Changes to this system would be much work and will require deeper debate and implementation strategy.

Other ills we have are poor voter registration and poor voter turnout. Instead of blaming the attitude of the people, let us see how the system is building barriers to voting. Sample for my studies are electoral rolls of 27 constituencies of Bangalore City. I have also studied about 12 lakh voters of AP and about 35 lakh voters of Delhi, which are in far better state.

–          When the basis of calculations is suspect, we cannot rely on the results of analysis. Our voter lists are bloating with duplicate and fake entries while genuine voters are deleted illegitimately – as observed even by the Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court.

–          Getting registered as voter is unnecessarily complicated.

–          Correcting erroneous data is difficult.

–          Dr. Suranjana the previous CEO, Karanataka, stated that it took six months to get his duplicate entry deleted from the voter list. Mr. Nandan Nilekanni’s daughter had 4 entries in the list for years. Despite reporting the error widely, additional entries were deleted after 3 years.

–          ECI directives are violated by CEOs, DEOs and EROs.

–          Vendors of products and services are not held accountable. Their services are of very poor quality.

A system is not just the rules and procedures in paper. It includes the people who practice and the people who are affected. For effective reforms, stake-holders of the system also need to re-form their knowledge, attitude, behaviour, beliefs and practices.

ECI has an acronym – KABBP for knowledge, attitude, behaviour, beliefs and practices. Here is a story related with KABBP.

In April 2012, ECI sent a directive to CEO, Karnataka, to conduct a KABBP survey mainly to find out reasons for poor voter turnout and for inadequate voter registration. After the last Assembly Elections 2008, CEO, Karnataka, reported average voter turnout of 64.87% for the state and 46.88% for Bangalore City. KABBP survey reported a turnout of 87% in the state! The report was shamefully non-professional and utterly impractical in its recommendations. The CEO’s office accepted the survey report and sent to ECI in Dec 2012. They are not even looking at the problem.

The survey report was signed by Alfred Samuel, MD of Search India, a registered society. Search showed that the address of the organisation was that of Karnataka Mission Fellowship Fund, a Christian Missionary organisation and Alfred Samuel was its treasurer.  A few calls revealed that he died on 15 Nov 2012. The current head of Search India told that

  1. He was chairman of Planning Department, State Government.
  2. A few retired officers of state government started Search India, which did well for initial 4 to 5 years.
  3. Now, some of the founders are old and disabled and some are dead. The organisation does not have analysts or field staff. No projects.
  4. They want to close the company in March 2013.
  5. He was not happy about the quality of KABBP Survey Report submitted to CEO office. The study was not scientifically conducted.
  6. Were he the CEO, he would not have accepted such a report.


In general, he was defensive about the poor quality of work and blamed CEO office for the shoddy job. The CEO and ECI probably did not read the study but may instruct the recommendations to be implemented.

“Effective employees are those who take the time to read the fine print.” HBR blog.

It is dangerous if reforms are based on such studies. Reform the people in the system by making them accountable to enable constructive reforms to the system.

Do we need a new mouse-trap?

Reforms are needed – but after we comply with the current rules, standards, and guidelines. How many of us know that a citizen can register as voter in post offices, bank brnaches, educational institutes and such 13 places? The post masters, bank managers and college principals do not know that they are expected to participate in registration drive. EROs do not know either. Have you seen a drop box for your voter registration form in public places? Paper reforms all. At best, they create confusion today. Reforms should be tracked for implementation and effectiveness.

Base reforms on felt needs based on experience and evidences. Stop unsuitable archaic practices and unlearn bad habits. Stop them officially – don’t write something as a rule and then dismiss in practice as impractical.

Not every theory from books will  apply in our context. E.g., Duverger’s law  says that first-past-the-post (simple majority) system will lead to two-party systems over time. In our 60+ years of election history, the number of political parties have increased instead.

Edward De Bono suggested “each factory must be downstream of itself.”

People working in the election system are also voters. They are also consumers of the service they provide. If they all use the services they provide, they would identify several opportunities to improve. In June 2012, I once asked the CEO to find his name in the voter list using his much publicised voter search feature on the website. His IT specialist tried for ten minutes in vain. How do we expect a common man to find his name in the list? Then, if there are requests to enroll from a voter whose name is already in the list, who is more accountable for the error?

For more than six months the CEO has received scores of complaints that online registration does not work well and is confusing. Success rate of online registration attempts is less than 50%. Till today there has been no effort to make the feature reliable and usable. Such neglects distance the citizens, increase the workload of EROs, and also increase the errors in records.

Talking of errors, you find ten when you look for one. A friend once introduced me to Ms. Sapna Pothi. I told that I knew her from the electoral rolls. Her first reaction on seeing her record in the electoral rolls was “They have spelt my name wrong!” I said, “by the way, your sex is Male, age is zero and relative’s name is blank.” She said, “Oh! My! My mother’s data is identical too.” There are thousands of such cases.

  1. Age below 18 or above 120, the oldest person being  1994 years
  2. Blank fields
  3. Duplicate entries, fake entries, wrong relationship. A male is shown having a husband, a lady’s father-in-law is shown as her husband …

And for inventiveness, if a person’s name appears seven times – as voter and relative of other voters in the family – in each entry the name is spelt differently. In addresses of voters (in the rolls for MLC elections) Bangalore is written in 215 different ways.

The CEO’s website is an apology for quality and usefulness. CMC Ltd., an ISO 9001:2000 certified company maintains the site without any respect for the rules, standards and guidelines and without concern for the users. They are CMM Level-5 accredited, but operate at level-0. Level-5 means continuous improvements, but we find decay with every change to the system. The employees of this company too are voters and hence users of the system as well.

The company website gives address of its corporate office in Delhi; Tata Sons, the holding company, gives an address in Bombay. They both do not respond to letters or phone calls.

To cap it, in the 27 constituencies of Bangalore, about 13.5 lakh voters were deleted between April and November 2012, giving a wrong reason that people have shifted residence.  DEO/ERO did not verify the changes though required by rules in this case and in many other actions.

Do we need a rule that rules should be followed? Then a rule that that rule should be followed? “Every drink makes me a new man; and every new man needs a drink.” Let us respect and practice the existing rules and processes before blaming the system.

The ECI and CEO seek feedback, on paper. For about 35 emails to CEO with copy to ECI between June and August 2012, there was no response, no action. Then we moved the High Court with a PIL. The judgment reads, “It appears that the grievances ventilated in the Writ Petitions are well founded… We direct the CEO to suo motu look into the issues articulated in these Petitions as also the legitimacy of deletions carried out, regardless of whether objections from the public are received in this respect.”

It is akin to a student indulging in malpractices in examination, not heeding to advices, getting caught and made to write re-exam. The student would be very angry with the system, of course.

It is easier to bring changes to the system than change attitude of 60 crore voters. It is apt to change the accountability at the top rather than blaming the common man.

Need for medicine will reduce if we eat healthy and exercise. Without that, any expensive treatment cannot give us health.

The seminar that follows will discuss reforms to the system. My emphasis has been to pave way to lasting reforms by a culture of compliance and accountability before reforms.

The reforms should aim at

  1. Integrating work products of different government bodies rather than re-inventing.
  2. Adopting a common standard for the country for common data elements like name and address.
  3. Using existing organisations and network to improve efficiency rather than building yet another empire. Piggy back on various activities and improve efficiency.
  4. Make it a joy for all involved. Simplify processes and procedures. It is not a favor to the citizens, it is an important service to sustain democracy.
  5. Keep several audit trails to bring in accountability. Set up SLAs for various activities.

I conclude, thanking the organisers for giving me this opportunity to express my views on the electoral system of India. I wish the conference a great success.



About pgbhat

A retired Naval Officer and an educationist. Has experience with software industry. A guest faculty at different institutes and a corporate trainer with software development companies.
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