Disastrous program to link Aadhaar with voter ID may be revived

Documents containing the Aadhaar numbers and voter identity numbers of 350 million Indian citizens have never been accounted for by the government agency that generated them, and in many cases are stored insecurely, leading to concerns of vote suppression, the Huffington Post reports. Now the program that led to the issue, and allegedly to numerous people being thrown off of voter rolls, could be revived.

The Electoral Commission of India (ECI) was forced to suspend the 2015 National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme (NERPAP) only 6 months after its February 2015 launch, when the Supreme Court blocked it pending its eventual decision, which was recently rendered, on Aadhaar’s constitutional validity. The plan was for the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) to deduplicate the country’s voter lists, but 2.2 million voters were eliminated from the rolls in Telangana, one of two states where the program was trialed, leading to accusations of wrongdoing.

When the plan was blocked the ECI issued a circular proposing that “(t)o avoid wastage of paper, existing stock of the Forms and BLO’s Registers with field for Aadhaar Number shall be used by removing Aadhaar field by hand marking (blackening) with black sketch pen.”

The Madras High Court is scheduled to hear a petition on November 27 to have the ECI link voter cards to Aadhaar numbers, as in the previous attempt. The court is expected to approve the program’s revival.

The Huffington Post reports that algorithms used in the Aadhaar program have decreased government accountability and transparency, rather than increased them as intended, and says that senior government officials use software they do not fully understand instead of their own judgement.

A former Chief Election Commissioner, speaking on condition on anonymity, told the Huffington Post that the UIDAI had pushed for voting rolls to be deduplicated through Aadhaar, but the commission wanted to wait until the implications of doing so were fully understood. Concerns included the legality of sharing voter data in a manipulatable form with UIDAI, and the jurisdiction of each state over its own voter rolls.

HS Brahma became Chief Election Commissioner in 2015, and led the effort to integrate the two databases. He says the system was meant to be a voluntary means of weeding out fake votes. The ECI used software provided by the UIDAI to perform bulk seeding of voter records with Aadhaar numbers, in a process known as “inorganic seeding.” This process resulted in a manner uncertain results, the Huffington Post reports, which were confirmed using an imperfect method involving knocking on the doors of prospective voters’ homes.

“Aadhaar linking has been the source of exclusion of a large number of people,” economist Reetika Khera, who has studied the impact of linking Aadhaar with social programs, told the Huffington Post. “Those who did not, or could not, link Aadhaar numbers were suspected to be “ghosts” or “fake,” and without ever giving them notice or warning them, their names were struck off the rolls.”

The Aadhaar national biometric program has been plagued by difficulties, many of which seem to involve use or linkage of the ID number without biometric confirmation, as in the integration with voter rolls.

UIDAI CEO Ajay Bhushan Pandey recently said that changes to the system will improve its security and increase public confidence in Aadhaar.

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