It was a usual hot and humid day in Chennai when I arrived from Bangalore to vote. The booth lacked energy, a few fans whirred; the guard let me pass and corporation officials squatted on their chairs in post-lunch lethargy.
A few polling agents, appointed by various political parties contesting for the Lok Sabha seat from Central Chennai, were conducting ID checks and looked sharp in crisp untucked half-sleeved white shirts and black trousers, a standard among party workers in Tamil Nadu.
I headed for the final check. Here, the First Polling Officer, the final checkpoint before one heads to the EVM, looked up and said, “You are on the ASD list, you can’t vote.” The Second Polling Officer, who is supposed to put the indelible ink on the finger, concurred.
I blinked and muttered an indecipherable “Eh?” to which the former irritatedly clarified, “Shifted ma. You have shifted.”
He pointed at the little handwritten “X” across my name. From an adjacent desk another sheet emerged, and under the title, "Absentee, Deceased and Shifted" was a long list of names written in Tamil.
"This is handwritten. How do I even know you didn’t write it now. Not that I am saying you did,” I shot back.
"The corporation gives us this, go talk to them," he said.
"I will. But for now, what can I do to vote? I am officially on the electoral roll," I said.
"You cannot," he replied
He said it is possible that I might have been away when the booth level officer, who assists in updating the electoral roll ahead of the elections, came for inspection. I had been a nomad quite a bit in the last two years, so I presumed it must be the BLO’s mistake. However, finding a office-goer at home at the same time as an unannounced inspection seemed implausible.
Even as I stood there, my cousin, sibling, and some neighbours who had lived at the same address for more than a decade learnt that they were on the ASD list too.
I was aware that the polling agents, the presiding officer from the Election Commission of India and some security personnel were eavesdropping. One polling agent vociferously asked me to get over it and get out.
I did. But only to return with a digital copy of the Election Commission handbook which shed some light on what ASD actually is.
In the Election Commission’s Handbook for Presiding Officer, “Voter from ASD List” is a section marked "Special Circumstances and Response." It notes: "Absentee, Shifted and Dead Voter List is prepared by ERO/RO from field information. Voter to produce EPIC or permitted photo document, Presiding Officer to verify personally. Thumb impression in addition to signature to be obtained in Register of Voters (Form 17A). Presiding Officer shall maintain a record and give a certificate at the end of poll about electors allowed from ASD list."
In a nutshell, those on the ASD list can vote if the presiding officer allows and after signing Form 17A, which can be obtained from the officials at the booth.
When I returned to the booth, the presiding officer acknowledged this rule but refused to let me vote. In the background, the polling agents had started arguing with the officials. They alleged partiality, noting that some voters on the list weren't allowed in the morning and hence no one else should. I pointed out that they could have voted if they had looked up the rules, and asked the officers to follow the procedure. But it emerged that somewhere in the bureaucratic chain of command, there was a confusion and in an earlier case that morning someone on the ASD list wasn’t allowed to vote. The polling agents decided that this would be followed.
The mood of the room took a sharp turn. The lethargy and silence dissipated, replaced by male ego and tension. The agents kept overruling every single order of the officials, their tempers peaking higher than the temperatures outside. I reached out to people on Twitter, and a few people responded. In a few minutes, I spoke to a returning officer, who assured me that he was enroute to address the case.
On arrival, he ordered the presiding officer to let me vote. Once again, I headed to the booth. But both the polling officers sat with their hands crossed, as the polling agents mounted a loud protest. All hell broke loose. The polling agents blocked the presiding officer and repeated requests and explanations of why someone on the ASD list can cast my vote fell on deaf ears. The afternoon took an ugly turn as the two camps, the ECI officials (polling officers, presiding officer, and the returning officer) tried to reason with the polling agents (representing the parties).
The aforementioned handbook under the section on “Verification of Elector’s Identity and Procedure in Case of Challenge”, has this advice for the polling agents:
“If any person claims to be an elector, whose name is mentioned in those lists you shall check that person's identity rigorously with the help of his Electoral Photo Identity Card (EPIC) or one of the alternative documents of identification specifically permitted by the Commission. This will not amount to a formal challenge."
Note the final clarification, a polling agent had no power to stop the voter.
However, a handbook does not anticipate the myriad ways in which reality unfolds on the field. Especially the choices one has to make when faced with the looming possibility of violence versus one vote.
Through the many hours I fought for my vote, there were as many as 10-12 voters who were turned away because they were on this ASD list. It turned out that the handwritten list the officials had brandished in my face was only for reference but had nearly 40-50 names on it.
The ASD list has been a pain point for the Election Commission for a few years now, and disputes over this have been reported in the past. However, the ECI has provisions that allow “shifted” voters to exercise their franchise. The issue, as was seen in this case, was a complete lack of awareness amongst some polling officials and the public alike. Here’s a how-to-vote pointer for anyone who is listed on the electoral rolls but ends up on the ASD list:
- Speak to the Presiding Officer and/or the Returning Officer, who will verify your identity using a photo ID permitted by the ECI or your EPIC card
- Sign and fill a declaration form (17A or Annexure 16)
- Some officers may take your photograph for record purposes
Officials are required to collect and collate this data, to ensure that the names enter the system and duplicate votes are avoided. Yet, there is no publicly available data on how many people end up on this list in each election. The ASD list is aimed at curbing bogus votes. Yet it has inadvertently been keeping voters away, hindering the ECI from fulfilling its promise of "No voter to be left behind".
It was nearly 5.55 pm when a senior officer arrived at the spot and decisively intervened. She threw the rule book on the table, with aforementioned form, as five of copied it. The polling officers finally obliged, marked my finger and let me proceed to the EVM.
The author is a freelance writer and editor based in Bengaluru
Mahima A Jain
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Updated Date: Apr 22, 2019 20:07:08 IST