Once upon a time, in a banking scenario far removed from where we are today, one had to visit the specific branch of a bank for any banking transactions. To deposit and withdraw cash or to deposit and encash cheques there was no option but to travel to the branch where one had opened one’s account. Then came Core Banking Systems and the world was not the same anymore. Since all the branches were connected to a centrally located Core Banking Systems, all information about a customer was always available at any branch and the concept of Any Branch Banking become the norm. This was followed by ATM and finally Internet Banking.
When it comes to voting we are still in the old, old era. Why can the Election Commission not move along the same trajectory that the banks have travelled in the past twenty years ?
Let us consider the feasibility and possibility of Any Booth Voting.
The Election Commission has a process in place to issue Voter ID Cards and while there could be loopholes in the validation of the applicants right to vote, these cards have been, by and large, accepted as proof of identity beyond reasonable doubt. Now if someone has such an Voter ID Card there should be no need for him or her to visit the specific booth where he is registered to cast his vote. Any booth operated by the Election Commission — if it is connected to a Central Election System through the digital technology — should be adequate. An attempt to vote at two or more places can be detected immediately – just as an attempt to overdraw money from two different branches is detected immediately in any decent Core Banking System.
With Any Booth Voting, a voter need not be physically present at his constituency on the specific day and time. He can vote from anywhere in the country where the Election Commission has set up a booth. This will be a boon for travellers as well as economic migrants who have to live away from their constituency to earn a living.
Using the banking system as an analogy, we can extend this idea even further.
● First the Voter ID Card can be made smarter and more rugged by adding a magnetic stripe or an embedded chip in which the biometric information collected by the UIDAI or the NPR can be encoded.
● Secondly, the software on the nationwide network of ATM machines can be upgraded to connect with the Central Voting System and determine the identity of the voter who has entered the card and direct his vote to the appropriate constituency or election. So an eligible voter could vote in the Kolkata Corporation Elections and the South Kolkata Lok Sabha elections as and when they are held even though the voter may be physically working in Mumbai.
● Finally, and as a measure of abundant ( or redundant ) caution, there can be mechanism in which a password can be sent by SMS to the phone number registered in the name of the voter. Nearly half the population of the country has access to cellphones and so this is not a limiting factor.
Any Branch Banking has not put and end to normal branch based banking. There are still many people who do not use ATMs and prefer the comfort of a face-to-face encounter. So could be the case with Any Booth Voting and existing booth-based elections can continue to operate in parallel. Voters who are comfortable with Any Booth Voting can ask for and have their Voter Cards upgraded to support this new system and they can be even be charged some money for the same. There could be a fee for a smart Voter Card, just as there are charges for ATM usage but with the passage of time these will become the norm and it may be cheaper for the Election Commission to pay for these cards from the money that will be saved through this process.
The technology to make all this happen is available in the country today. It needs someone in the Government to connect all the dots and make it happen.
Prithwis Mukerjee is professor, School of Management, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur