As part of the four notifications issued under The Election Laws (Amendment) Act, 2021, the Central government notified rules for seeding Aadhaar numbers with the electoral roll. Rules were notified under the amended sub-clause (5) under Section 23 of the Representation of the People Act, 1950 which allows election registration officers to seek Aadhaar numbers from the individuals to authenticate entries in the electoral roll.
In addition to using Aadhaar authentication for the new entries to the electoral roll, the amendment to Section 23 also takes a retrospective approach where the Central government notified April 1, 2023 as the date on or before which individuals who have already enrolled on electoral roll must seed their Aadhaar number to authenticate their entry.
While Aadhaar seeding to the electoral roll is on a voluntary basis for having a fair election through weeding out fake, duplicate and fraud voter IDs, this seeding brings various privacy, data protection and exclusion concerns to the fore, which need urgent attention.
Though sub-clause (5) of Section 23 of the Representation of the People Act, 1950 makes Aadhaar seeding for authentication voluntary, other proof such as driving license, PAN card etc, are allowed only if the individual doesn’t have an Aadhaar card. In addition, there is a lack of choice in terms of not providing an Aadhaar number where the individual is insisted to provide “sufficient reasons” for the same. This shows that the Aadhaar number is propounded as a single source of truth to authenticate the electoral roll, which may cause unintended consequences of exclusion at different stages of identification, as discussed below.
Enrolment: The demographic details of Aadhaar, especially the date of birth, are not concretely verified during the enrolment stage, which could cause fault entries into the system. As data of birth is one of the key elements for exercising universal suffrage, using Aadhaar details authentication could cause a fall through the cracks in terms of false negatives and positives. Also, the system to change the date of birth on Aadhaar is not straightforward without supporting documents such as a birth certificate, making it difficult for the low-income and rural population.
Authentication: While both false negatives and positives during Aadhaar authentication could cause an impact, false negatives in terms of excluding eligible individuals from voting could hurt the democratic system of India. This kind of exclusion was instrumentalized when the Central government implemented a pilot program titled National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme in Telangana using authority authentication for electoral roll validation. Under this programme, about 31 crore individuals’ Aadhaar numbers were seeded with the electoral data roll of Telangana, and about 3 million voters were excluded from the electoral roll before this programme got suspended in 2015. A Right to Information (RTI) query on this matter revealed that the exclusion of voters was due to the unverifiability of voter names during Aadhaar seeding to the electoral roll, which illustrated the exclusionary effect of using the Aadhaar authentication system.
Application: There is less clarity in terms of how individuals voice their grievances and how the election registration officer will handle problems with the authentication system. In addition, less clarity in terms of course correction and lack of a cross-checking mechanism to evaluate the integrity and cleanliness of the data increases the chances of false negatives and false positives in identifying individuals for voting.
The way forward
At the fundamental level, it is important to explicitly acknowledge that in addition to Aadhaar for authenticating the electoral roll, individuals can use alternative legal IDs like PAN card, driving license etc. for the same purpose. Though the notification states that individuals can use other proofs for authentication, it should be complementary to Aadhaar and not a replacement to the same.
While Aadhaar can act as a single source of truth, it is also essential to have a mechanism to cross-check and evaluate the integrity and cleanliness of the data while seeding it with the electoral roll, as unclean data would cause disenfranchisement. For instance, mechanising periodic audits for both data collection methods and data at the Aadhaar level could help in cross-checking. Besides, comparing the data with an alternative database can also help determine gaps and mistakes in data points while authenticating the electoral roll. Moreover, it is important to have a dispute management mechanism where individuals can voice their concerns related to Aadhaar seeding with the electoral roll process.
Besides, there is only marginal benefit from having data breach notifications and following a standard prescription like the one stated by Election Commission on strict actions against poll officials on Aadhaar data leak. Therefore, it is essential to set holistic privacy and data protection measures distributed across the various players within the ecosystem to ensure any seeding operation related to Aadhaar can be secured.
Kamesh Shekar is a Senior Research Associate at The Dialogue and Fellow at the Internet Society. His area of research covers informational privacy, surveillance technology, intermediary liability, safe harbour, issue of mis/disinformation on social media, AI governance etc.