In a consultation seeking public comments, the Election Commission of India suggested, among other things, that there be a gag on social media in the 48 hours before polls open in elections. The ECI’s recommendation — which along with others is what is up for public comment — did not really mention who on social media sites should keep silent, but the law the commission cited, section 126 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, says that “star campaigners and other Political Leaders” should maintain silence during this time.

The comment period for this consultation closes on 31 March. The recommendation is one of twenty-five, all of which propose different degrees of significant changes to how elections are managed. The recommendations come from multiple working groups headed by senior officials at the ECI. The ECI did not elaborate on which working groups looked into what issues and what their membership was.

Other recommendations

Among the several recommendations by the ECI’s working groups made public, a few stood out in their use of digital methods.

  • Electronic voter ID: The ECI recommends that voter IDs be electronically accessible by voters. This would be akin to an e-Aadhaar, which is just as valid as the version of Aadhaar issued to enrollers by post. (IDs like PAN cards and passports are also accepted as valid ID proof when voting in India). Note that with e-KYC not allowed for Aadhaar, there remains a possibility of doing e-KYC with the voter ID.
  • Online voting? One of the most curious recommendations concerns ‘different voting methods’ without mentioning specifically what that might be. It reads:

    Exploring the possibility and feasibility of different voting methods, which are secure, for enhancing electoral participation. Commission has already implemented one way online transfer of postal ballots for service and implemented the same for the whole country in 2019. It has been seen that approximately 30% of electors are not able to participate in elections for various reasons, some of them, as assessed in a report on facilities of domestic migrants may polling to the category of migrants who continue to remain voters at their previous locations. Commission is exploring the possibility and feasibility of different voting methods which remains secure and safe to ease and improve the electoral participation.

    The fact that the problem mainly has to do with distance, along with the example cited of online transfer of postal ballots for service voters could be an indication that the ECI is considering a version of online voting for some voters, a highly controversial proposition that security experts decry as anything from difficult to impossible to secure.

  • Online election planning and constituency mapping: The ECI recommended setting up an online portal to track election planning and related data in real time. They also recommended making constituency boundaries and their maps available online to the public, using GIS mapping.
  • Registering minors: 17 year olds should be registered for voting early at school and college, the commission recommended, for their ‘smooth transition’ into eligible voters.
  • Online nomination, portal for people with disabilities: The recommendations also include letting politicians file their election paperwork online, and to start a portal to assist people with disabilities and senior citizens. One suggestion also includes linking services like UMANG and DigiLocker to let voters be registered by using documents they have already uploaded.
  • Online registration of teachers’ and graduates’ electoral rolls: In some states with a bicameral legislature, there are constituencies where only teachers and graduates can vote for one of the chambers of the state assembly. This practice has been criticised as outdated. The ECI has recommended not that the practice be ended, but that the electoral rolls for these constituencies also be prepared online, as it is for regular elections.
  • Booth level officers familiar with technology: Booth Level Officers are mostly government officers from other services who work overtime to manage their division of the district. “There is a need to have a dedicated system of booth level officer who can handle digital devices to operate various IT based applications of the Commission for the purpose of electoral roll,” the commission said.

Political use of data, Facial Recognition not addressed

Issues like voter privacy and preventing voter profiling were not tackled in the recommendations. The Telangana State Election Commission (TSEC), had announced that a facial recognition app would be used on a pilot basis at 10 polling stations in the Kompally Municipality in the civic elections in the state. This raised privacy concerns, especially in the absence of a law governing facial recognition.

In addition, the Election Commission has not addressed the usage of citizen data to micro-target voters. India needs robust systems to make sure that there is transparency in what information is made available to political parties for outreach purposes, and how this information is used. As we have recommended before, giving citizens control over what data about them is shared, and the ECI having the right to get unlawfully obtained data deleted is key, given the range of spurious ways election data has been used by political parties thus far.

The Election Commission of India needs to restrict political usage of data

MediaNama will be responding to this consultation. If you would like to comment on it, find the consultation here. If you’d like to make your submission public, CC us at nikhil@medianama.com or aroon@medianama.com.