Vol. 5 Num 907 Fri. December 15, 2006  

Take time to fix voter roll

The electoral roll prepared earlier by the Election Commission faced challenge in the court of law as well as the court of intelligence. The High Court had asked the errant EC to follow the procedure laid down in law, and was upheld by the Appellate Division with some modifications. Knowledgeable analysts criticized the initial electoral roll as a demographic absurdity: the number of voters was far in excess of the voting age cohort. The criticism did not have much impact on the EC.

The survey conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) has now identified the pit-falls clearly. The electoral roll has 9.30 crore voters -- about 66% of the population -- which compounds the demographic absurdity noticed before. Excess registration accounts for 13% of the voters registered, including 6% fictitious names and 7% duplicate names. Despite such high excess registration, 2.5% of the eligible voters have been left out.

The irregularities appear even grosser when the update of 2001 electoral roll and supplemental list that contains the new registration are disaggregated. The supplemental list accounts for 23% of the total registered voters. The voters who are 24 years of age or older constitute 37% of the supplemental list. They were eligible voters in 2001 and already included in the existing roll; they represent serial duplicate registration which falsely raises the number of registered voters.

The serial duplicate registration is higher in rural areas (54%) than in urban areas (46%). The ratio of excess and serial duplicate registration in urban areas is disproportionately high, given that there are fewer urban voters than rural voters. The statistical metropolitan area (SMA) has the worst electoral roll, which contains 60% of the urban excess registration and 64% of the serial duplicate registration (i.e. voters 24 years of age or older). SMA comprises the city corporations of Dhaka, Khulna, Chittagong, and Rajshahi.

The abnormally high excess and serial duplicate registration in SMA challenges faith in the integrity of the voter list. Normally, city dwellers show better civic consciousness and resist false registration with greater force, and the EC can exercise closer supervision over urban registration. It was just the opposite. This calls for an enquiry to determine the sources and motivation for false and excess registration. The stories in the media (e.g. Mohammadpur, Chittagong) point to the EC.

The survey employed rigorous statistical methods, which makes it highly reliable. The sample included 22,000 persons in 37 villages and mahallas; interviews of 11,000 persons; two-way matching of registered voters to the persons residing in the area and vice versa; and door-to-door checks to identify the reasons for mismatch and the large fictitious as well as serial registration.

If people are registered in an area but do not reside there, then it is a case of fictitious/duplicate registration; if the persons are residing in the area but are not registered, then it is a case of omitting eligible voters. The flaws are gross: an election based on the corrupted voter list will lack legitimacy, which will injure the stability at home and acceptability abroad.

The EC has resumed collection/checking of the data for the electoral roll. This will take ten days (December 8 - 15). The EC has not issued clear instructions to the field offices and the enumerators. There are reports that they are striking off names of the deceased but not the fictitious or duplicate entries, and are not registering the eligible voters omitted earlier. The process will produce a mis-corrected electoral roll which will reduce the aggregate number of voters to better demographic consistency but will not do much to correct the excess registration and the omissions.

There are enough safeguards in the law which can eliminate many of the errors and irregularities and substantially enhance the integrity of the electoral roll. First, at least 10% of the entries in the initial register must be checked before publishing of the draft roll. The sample may be larger, but it must be designed in conformity with statistical methods and executed with rigour in order to ensure statistical reliability. The time for verification must be sufficient because of the magnitude and complexity of the task. Verification which is not based on a statistically reliable sample must be rejected. [Electoral Rolls Rules 1982, 6(2)]

Second, notice is issued inviting petitions for inclusion or exclusion within 15 days of publication of the draft roll. It seems that 15 days will be too tight a schedule, and the period may be extended by exercise of the discretion of the Commission. By the same logic, the ten days allowed by the Election Commission for collection and correction of data is inadequate. [ERR 6( 3 & 4), 7]

Third, the revising authority appointed by the Election Commission to dispose of petitions for inclusion or exclusion of voters should be given responsibility for one electoral area in SMA and, preferably, also in the municipal jurisdictions; the number of areas or constituencies must be kept to the minimum in rural areas if multiple assignments are absolutely necessary. The revising authorities cannot dispose of judiciously the large number of petitions they are expected to deal with. [ERO 9, 16, 17]

Finally, the procedure and the informational requirements for exclusion of names are too ponderous, and will allow much of the fictitious and excess registration to continue. The petition for exclusion of someone from the roll can be made only by a person who is already registered in that area, and has to contain all the particulars required to be filled in the roll. This can lead to much mischief because exclusion of some groups or individuals reduces the number of the people who can object to false registration, and it is impossible in virtually all cases of objection to provide information as regards date of birth, permanent and present addresses, etc. False declaration is punishable with imprisonment up to six months and fine of up to one thousand taka. [ERO 10(5)]

As an additional safeguard, the Election Commission may conduct a statistical test using a relatively small sample. Such tests are conducted for population census and the data are adjusted accordingly. This is not prescribed by law, but is not prohibited either. Law is but a poor social institution if it debars use of knowledge for better administration of public affairs.

The procedures for rectification of gross error and irregularity are different. The Election Commission cancels the corrupted electoral roll for an area or constituency, and a fresh electoral roll is prepared. The Election Commission has to determine what constitutes gross error and irregularity. The following criteria are suggested: (i) all deceased persons must be deleted; (ii) all serial duplicate entries (24 years of age or older) must be deleted; (ii) some excess registration on account of migration or change of residence may be tolerated as inevitable. Migration and deceased persons account for 4.6% of the excess registration. Excess registration above 8%, which allows for flaws as well as inefficiency and imprecision, may be taken as gross error and irregularity. [ERO 7(7)]

On the above criteria for gross error and irregularity, the following approach may be adopted for cancellation of electoral roll:
* SMA Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna and Rajshahi, where 64% of new voters are 24 years or older.
* All urban areas (excluding SMA mentioned above) where 44% of new voters are 24 years or older.
* The following administrative divisions which have very high new and serial duplicate registration: Rajshahi - 34%; Dhaka - 32%, mostly serial duplicate registration; Chittagong and Sylhet - 22%, mostly serial duplicate registration.
* Specific localities (in above areas) where excess registration is less than 8% and there is no serial duplicate registration may be exempted.
* Electoral rolls for specific non-SMA/non-municipal localities in Barisal and Khulna divisions may be eligible for cancellation; these two divisions have 12% excess registration.

The announcement of the election schedule makes correction of the errors, including gross errors and irregularities, very difficult, if not (nearly) impossible. From issuance of the notice of election till its completion, the EC alone has the power to order inclusion, exclusion, or any other correction. The EC refers to this power when it says that corrections can be made up to the day of the election. The power is too centralized to be practicable, except on a very small scale.

It would have been prudent of the EC to defer the notice until a reliable electoral roll was prepared; cancellation of the notice may still allow adequate correction of the electoral roll, but will delay the election. The decision would depend on the relative merits of a timely election on the basis of a corrupted electoral roll, and a delayed election on the basis of an honest electoral roll. [ERO 15, ERR 20(5)].

It appears that we are approaching the election with the institutional arrangements, especially in the electoral roll and the EC, in the worst disarray. An election within the time prescribed by the Constitution will fail to return a genuinely representative parliament and government; an election based on appropriate institutional arrangements will return a more representative government but will be delayed.

Masihur Rahman is a freelance contributor to The Daily Star.