Lok Sabha 2024: Missing names, long queues add to Mumbai’s low voter turnout

Deleted names and inexplicable delays worsened the voter turnout in Mumbai, and civil society wants remedies sooner rather than later.

Loretta Maria Pereira, 66, a committed and enthusiastic voter for decades, had noticed a discrepancy in her voter profile, where she was marked as male. She had applied online for correction, well in time, and was all set to vote in the fifth phase of the Lok Sabha 2024 elections on May 20th. But to her shock, the clarification was not updated in the electoral rolls and the polling officer wouldn’t let her vote. 

Loretta spent the next three hours calling people who could help, going online, and going to the Khar election office from her polling booth in Chimbai, Bandra, until the election officers accepted that the delay was on their part and allowed her to vote. She is one of the few people, who were held ineligible to vote but managed to exercise their franchise after running from the proverbial pillar to post. 

“I was determined to vote and did everything in my capacity to spot and rectify the discrepancy. I thought, even if it took me the whole day, I would try to vote.” However, many people left the polling booth without voting after finding their names missing, she said.  

Long queues and voter apathy

On May 20th, as the day progressed, three issues were crystal clear — one, that Mumbai continues to be apathetic to elections. But, the other two made headlines — that of scores of people finding their names deleted and/or missing from the rolls and agonisingly slow-moving queues at polling booths in officially declared heatwave conditions. 

Mumbai recorded a voter turnout of 53% with south Mumbai recording the lowest among the constituencies at 50%.

Despite an outcry on the ground and on social media, the Election Commission of India (ECI) did not come forward with any explanation. Now, civil society groups have decided to regroup and analyse what went wrong and what could be done at the earliest about missing names. 

The reason for the urgency? Maharashtra, which is currently governed by a curious mix of political parties, goes to polls this year. Not to mention the long overdue BMC elections. 

Voters’ responsibilities and Election Commission’s response 

Before we look at the role of the ECI and political parties, let’s tackle voters’ responsibility first. Several civic activists said that voters should have checked their names and details in the electoral rolls well in time, to avoid confusion. 

The election commission releases voter data and registration requirements periodically. The ECI website mentions that citizens can enrol themselves as a General Voter and fill out Form 6 online at the National Voters’ Service Portal and that registered voters should check their enrolment status.  

appeal for voters to vote in Mumbai
The Election Commission of India ran campaigns to urge young and old voters to come forward, but was found lacking on Election Day in solving problems. Pic: Prachi Pinglay-Plumber

Lillian Paes, a civic activist, worked closely with the election commission to help with voter awareness and registrations. “We helped people register and followed up. Senior citizens especially need help. Often, people assume that if they have a Voter ID, their names will be in the electoral rolls. But, it is better to check and take timely action.” However, she pointed out that they also dealt with cases, where despite doing everything, the names were missing. 

Moreover, activists said that both the polling booth staff and voters seemed unaware of remedial measures to make voting possible. 

Mehmood Pracha, a Delhi-based lawyer, who contested from Uttar Pradesh as an independent candidate and is part of protests against use of EVMs, said, “Even at the time of voting, people can ask the polling officer and cast a tender vote. Unfortunately, it does not happen. I call it the work of the ignorant by the ignorant.” 

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

Mobilising for voter rights

In a press conference, a collective of civil society organisations talked about various problems faced by the voters on May 20th and urged the ECI to look into it. In a statement, they said that when the issue of deleted names was brought to the notice of Kiran Kulkarni, Additional Chief Electoral Officer of Maharashtra, he had assured that people would get to vote if their names were on the deleted list. 

“There was no facilitation centre at any booth and many booth returning officers were unaware of the Absentee, Shifted and Dead (ASD) voters list. The provision to vote by signing a form, for voters whose names are on the deleted lists, is not known to a large number of presiding officers and even sending them that part of the Instructions for POs did not help. This has been a serious lapse and needs to be rectified at the earliest,” said the collective statement.

long voting queue in Mumbai
Long queues in extreme heat were distressing for most of voters. Pic: Chandiwali Citizens via X (Twitter)

Civic and human rights activists such as Tushar Gandhi and Teesta Setalwad have spoken about the impact of such incidences on the democratic processes. The Free Press Journal quoted Tushar Gandhi, activist and great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, as saying, “The voting process seemed extremely slow and I, as a senior citizen, took 45 minutes to cast my vote. My son’s gender and surname were changed, due to which he could not cast his vote. Around 60 people at my booth found their names missing from the voters’ list.”

Similarly, Dolphy D’souza of the Bombay Catholic Sabha spoke about mandatory facilities such as separate queue for senior citizens and wheelchair access missing in polling booths.

Challenges for Election Commission of India

Senior civic activists Sandhya Gokhale and Chayanika Shah worked with the ECI in the run-up to the elections for voter awareness, registrations and troubleshooting. One of the problems both observed was staff shortage. “The election commission was functioning with almost 50% (or worse) capacity. Many booth staff were not adequately trained or well-informed about the procedures,” explained Chayanika Shah. 

The door-to-door visits for confirmation of names were another challenge for the ECI. “When we offered to help, officials would usually ask us to cover the residential areas. We realised that election officials did not often get access to apartments,” said Sandhya Gokhale. 

Even door-to-door verification did not guarantee error-free voter rolls because if people were not home, ECI staff might just remove their names from the list.

Inexplicable delays make voters suspicious

On election day, within a few hours of voting, reports emerged from various areas that the queues in polling booths were simply not moving. In some places, voters took more than three to four hours to cast their mandate. 

This led to opposition leaders claiming that the election commission was compromised. Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray addressed a press conference and alleged the election commission of bias. 

Read more: Lok Sabha 2024: Civic manifesto by Govandi voters for a better future

This was also echoed by the civic activists in their statement, “In many areas — identifiable with community identity and voters who may favour opposition party candidates — behaviour of police officials stationed outside was aggressive and there were no special queues for women.” 

Upcoming elections and voter awareness

Most of the voters, activists and party workers opined that they need to increase their efforts in awareness, registration and problem-solving.

“Since we have seen what happened on May 20th, we need to start the mobilisation without any delays,” says Chayanika. Maharashtra has assembly elections in 2024 and the BMC elections are long overdue.

Voters, who could not vote on May 20th because of deleted names, discrepancies in voter rolls, changes in polling booths and so on, must cross-check the entries and apply for revisions. Also, first-time voters need to apply for new voter registrations and track their applications regularly.

Even as the citizens wait eagerly for June 4th to know the results and to find out who will be their elected representatives, there will be scores of voters, who will continue to rue over the missed opportunity.

What are people asking for?

Demands put forth by the civil society groups
Civil society groups in Maharashtra have asked the State Election Commission (SEC) to put out a call for citizens to send in their complaints vis-a-vis the election process and initiate immediate redressal of the same. They demand that:

1. The SEC, Maharashtra release all 17C and Form B data of all the constituencies in the state as required under Rule 495 of the Code of Conduct Election Rules, 1961.

2. All reports sent by the SEC, Maharashtra to the ECI Delhi from the start of the ongoing election process be made public through the SEC, Maharashtra website.

3. The SEC, Maharashtra must begin the registration process of missing voters from several Maharashtra constituencies with immediate effect, involving civil society and community groups in the process.

4. Also, a clean-up of electoral rolls (re-insertion of deleted voters and removal of deceased voters) is urgently required and mandatory.

5. The voter awareness programmes should be ongoing and conducted all year round
to honour the mandate under Articles 324-326 of the Indian Constitution.

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