January 10, 2023
NEW DELHI – The low electoral participation of internal migrants has long been an issue in India, the world’s largest democracy. More than 300 million people, many of them migrants who relocate for purposes such as work and education, did not vote in the 2019 general election.
Now, in a move aimed at making Indian democracy more inclusive, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has said it is ready to pilot a remote voting proposal for domestic migrants using a newly developed “multi-constituency remote electronic voting machine”.
It will allow such individuals to vote from their place of residence so that they do not have to travel either to their home state or district to cast their ballot. This modified machine can handle voting for up to 72 electoral constituencies from a single polling booth.
“Migration-based disenfranchisement is indeed not an option in the age of technological advancement,” the ECI said in its Dec 29 statement.
It has invited political parties for a demonstration of the machine’s prototype on Jan 16, and is seeking their feedback on the proposal by the end of January.
There are no precise numbers for internal migrants now in the country. According to the 2011 census, their number was pegged at more than 453 million. Based on census trends, a 2020 study in The Indian Journal of Labour Economics estimated this number at 600 million, with 140 million of them said to be migrant workers.
Such workers, most of whom are poor, continue to maintain strong links with their place of origin owing to factors such as land ownership there as well as familial ties.
One way of maintaining these links officially is by being registered on voter lists in their native places. However, during elections, many of these poor migrants are unable to travel long distances back home to vote because of lack of money and time.
This has resulted in widespread disenfranchisement, especially those from marginalised caste groups and indigenous tribal communities who make up for most of India’s migrant labour workforce.
In the 2019 federal election, the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, key sources for migrant workers, recorded among the lowest voter turnout rates at 57.33 per cent and 59.21 per cent, respectively, against the national average of 67.4 per cent.
But the move to allow remote voting has divided opinion between those who feel it will allow migrants to be better heard in India’s polity and others who fear it could lead to electoral fraud.
Dr S. Irudaya Rajan, chairman of International Institute of Migration and Development in Trivandrum in the southern state of Kerala, welcomed the move and said it could have a long-standing impact on migrant welfare.
“I think it will open up new ideas and ways to look at problems faced by migrants and also allow them to organise themselves in states where they work and influence political parties back home,” he told The Straits Times.
With data generated from voting patterns of migrants rendering them “politically visible”, parties from states that are key migrant sources could be compelled to take steps to look after their well-being, potentially including even pursuing inter-state deals to ensure migrant welfare, he said.
“Right now, because they are politically not really included, migrants are nobody’s baby.”
But political parties are divided. While Janata Dal–United, which currently governs Bihar, has welcomed the ECI’s initiative, parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham from Tamil Nadu and the Congress have expressed concern.
In a statement, the Congress party said rolling out such a move without “systematically addressing fears of misuse” of electronic voting machines can “seriously undermine” trust in the electoral system.
Expressing similar fears, Mr M.G. Devasahayam, coordinator of Citizens’ Commission on Elections – a fact-finding body that tracks India’s electoral processes – said the ECI should first address concerns around electoral fraud through the electronic voting machine before introducing remote voting.
Concerns about the technology used in these machines have persisted for long, despite authorities defending them staunchly as tamper-proof.
The commission, which includes representation from more than 100 former bureaucrats and academics, had written to the ECI, expressing some of its concerns in May 2022, but the letter went unanswered, Mr Devasahayam added.
“If they go for this move before resolving this issue, the fear of manipulation of elections becomes much, much bigger.”
Noting the absence of cross-party support, The Telegraph newspaper said in a Jan 3 editorial: “An initiative of such mammoth scale and importance must proceed on the basis of political consensus, which is sadly lacking at the moment.”