Missing names and missed opportunities: A Chennai citizen’s experience of elections

Irregularities in electoral rolls and voter enrollment in Chennai left many citizens high and dry, while ECI officials looked the other way.

The way the first phase of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections was conducted in Tamil Nadu, especially in Chennai, has laid bare the lacunae in the system. For residents, who were not able to cast their votes despite having valid Voter ID cards, it seemed nothing short of a sham.

Every time before the elections, the electoral rolls are updated by Election Commission of India (ECI) officials. Instead of deputing people who are working full-time within the ECI, the work is outsourced to government employees drawn from schools, colleges or other agencies. These ECI staff, who come from distant locations, are unfamiliar with the layouts, streets and apartments to which they are assigned and seek help from residents in the localities.


Read more: Lok Sabha 2024: Voter guide to help you vote in this election


I assisted the government workers to update the voters’ list before the last Assembly election. Taking my gesture for granted, the ECI official dropped the booth slips and the updated voters’ list in my home when I was away, a couple of days before the polling day. After waiting for a day, I was forced to distribute the booth slips with the help of community members.

The designated official just shunned her work, while inconveniencing the residents. In this way, two elections went by with only a few complaints, where the voters had not updated the change in residence. 

Problems in the voters’ list

While the onus lies with citizens to verify their names in the updated electoral rolls, it is also the duty of the electoral officers and political parties to ensure that door-to-door verification and updating of voters is done without fail.  How can the names of the voters who had exercised their mandate in the Assembly and local body elections go missing within two years? This has happened because of the carelessness of the TN election commission.

Voter IDs need to be linked to both the Aadhar Card and the registered mobile number. However, we faced several issues while trying to retrieve the booth slips using the Voter Helpline app during phase 1 of the the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

While my Aadhar Card is linked to the Voter ID and I can receive the OTP to sign in to the Voter Helpline app, I am unable to search for my name in the electoral rolls using my mobile number. This message comes up – “Your mobile number is not registered.” But, when I use my EPIC Number, I can view the voters’ list online. If a tech-savvy person like me finds it difficult to register or update my mobile number and email ID through the app, I don’t know if it is serving its purpose. The ECI must fix the issues in the app and make it user-friendly.

Instead of deputing officials drawn from other government agencies to update the voters’ lists or distribute booth slips, the ECI must use the available digital technology like SMS, e-mail or WhatsApp to complete these processes.

The ECI must identify office bearers of civic forums and seek their help to distribute booth slips. The commission can also explore the possibility of engaging unemployed, educated youth, ex-servicemen, and retired government officials across the country to help in electoral work. College students enrolled in the NSS or NCC can also be roped in. 

Chaotic scenes at the booth

On April 19, my wife and I reached the polling booth early morning. We saw several senior citizens returning home without voting. Since I knew many of them, I enquired why they did not vote. They said that polling booth officials were not willing to search their EPIC number in the voters’ list and wanted them to fetch their serial number from the booth agents of political parties, who were sitting 200 metres away from the polling station. Since I was familiar with the Voter Helpline app, I managed to help several residents before returning home.

People were seen running from pillar to post trying to get basic information, which should have been provided weeks before the polling day.

Later, I met other residents who were seen arguing with the booth agents and intervened to check why they were angry. One of them was Shakuntala Thiyagarajan, a resident of Perambur for several decades. She had cast her vote during the Assembly and local body elections held a few years ago.

voter
Shakuntala Thiyagarajan could not cast her vote as her name was missing from the rolls. Pic: Raghukumar Choodamani.

While her family members were able to vote, her name was missing in the updated list this time and she was not able to exercise her mandate. She had approached the polling officer with her grievance, but he refused to help saying he was helpless.

Later I met Raghavan, who is an active member of our civic forum. While he was able to cast his vote, his wife Ambuli’s name was missing from the voters’ list. She had her original Voter ID bearing EPIC Number FBC2106771 with her.

election
In Ambuli’s case, while the EPIC number is the same, the voter’s name and polling booth is different. Pic: Raghukumar Choodamani.
voter
While trying to retrieve the voter’s name from the electoral rolls using her updated Voter ID with the EPIC Number YCV0145235, this error came up. Pic: Raghukumar Choodamani

 

The couple has lived in their apartment for over two decades and are not sure how her name was deleted. Raghavan and Ambuli had travelled from a distant location, so they could cast their votes on election day. Who will take responsibility for the time and money they lost? Like Ambuli, several people had to return home without voting on April 19.  


Read more: Lok Sabha Elections 2024: Chennai North — Know your constituency and candidates


As convener of the Perambur Neighborhood Development Forum, I met the polling officers on duty and also the sector officer and sought their help. They shunned their responsibility, making excuses that they were on deputation to oversee the voting process only for a day, so they could not help. Officials drawn from other government agencies for polling duty must have the capability or power to redress the grievances of the people.

With no options left, we lodged complaints through the Voters Helpline app and reached out to the media to escalate our concerns. We even saw the Election Commissioner of Tamil Nadu on television, addressing a press meet, where he claimed that he had not received any complaints about name deletions. 

Soon enough, the news about missing names and discrepancies in the system spread like wildfire. Even the voter percentage declared on the eve of the election was revised the next day!

While the ECI spends crores of rupees from taxpayers’ money on advertisements and hoardings to ensure 100% polling, voters who are keen to exercise their mandate are denied the opportunity to participate in the elections.

Now that the election in Tamil Nadu is over, there is little that can be done to address the concerns of the voters who were not able to exercise their mandate. Will the officials responsible for the discrepancies be identified or pulled up?

Suspension or transfer alone is not going to serve any purpose. We demand the government expels them and attaches their properties. The lackadaisical attitude of ECI officials must not be tolerated.

Recommendations for a smooth electoral process

Our forum seeks the implementation of electoral reforms and offers the following suggestions to the ECI:

  • A country of our size and population cannot be in election mode all the time, so we support the sitting government’s proposal to implement the ‘One Nation, One Election’ policy.
  • The ECI should continue to use tamper-proof EVMs and VVPAT machines for the electoral process for free and fair elections. We are glad that the Supreme Court has turned down the request from opposition parties to revert to physical voting and counting exercise used in the past.
  • The election process can be further simplified to allow the voters to cast their votes from remote places under the supervision of a local electoral or enforcement officer using the available digital technology, which has multiple layers of security. 
  • Ease of voting will motivate a larger section of the society to engage in the democratic process and the percentage of voting is bound to increase.
  • Many people with criminal backgrounds occupy seats of power and are involved in making legislation. That is a matter of grave concern. The track record of candidates, who file the nomination papers must be thoroughly verified. Those who have any civil or criminal cases pending in the courts must apply for an NOC from the concerned authorities and file an affidavit stating that they will voluntarily relinquish their post, if convicted.
  • The government should introduce a bill to mandate a basic educational qualification and competitive exams or entrance tests for candidates who want to contest the elections, going forward.
  • Blacklist and ban political parties and not the candidates, if they indulge in corrupt practices, dole out cash and liquor; indulge in appeasement, fear and hate-mongering, and dividing people in the name of religion or caste only to influence the voters.
  • Free bus services introduced in our state after the Assembly elections have caused further damage to MTC and SETC, which were already running under a loss. The existing fleet of buses is in horrible condition and the transport departments do not seem to have the resources or funds to maintain the existing fleet. This was nothing but a clear attempt to mislead and betray the mandate of the voters. Government must avoid announcing unrealistic freebies and cash subsidies, when they can’t deliver the promises.

Follow-up of the complaints

On April 26, 2024, I received two calls from the ECI, asking me why I had filed the complaint about the missing names. I had a lengthy conversation with officials, who had called me and asked them to record my conversation if required for further escalation. 

  • On the April 29, the complaints filed were closed. In Shankuntala’s case, the ECI said the records cannot be found and she has to apply once again using Form 6 through the Voters Helpline app.
  • Ambuli’s grievance has been escalated to the Assistant Commissioner, Perambur zone and is being processed.

I am a senior citizen and have participated in several elections over the past four decades. Never have I seen so many angry and disappointed voters returning home without exercising their franchise.

With enemy nations across our borders waiting for an opportunity to break the country and destroy our economy, every citizen needs to exercise his/her mandate without any fear or favour.  The onus is on the Election Commission to ensure the elections are held professionally.

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