For a credible electoral roll
Election Commission Bangladesh (ECB) has started updating electoral roll since July 25, 2015 which will continue up to February 10, 2016. For better management, the ECB has divided the country into three parts. In each of the part, door to door data collection and registration (photograph and fingerprint) will be done in three phases.
The current electoral roll of Bangladesh is a continuous list of voters which was prepared during 2007-08 and is being maintained and regularly updated by the ECB. In 2008, IFES, on behalf of UNDP, conducted an audit and found that "data for the voter list have been collected with a high degree of accuracy, and the incidence of non-inclusion of voters who should have been included is very low. Even in cases where eligible voters do not appear on the list, there are adequate reasons that explain their non-inclusion." The list was "highly accurate and does not exhibit signs of systematic under-counting, existence of - ghost voters or exclusion of specific groups of voters."
Free and fair elections are not generally considered possible without a means of verifying legitimate voters. Hence, electoral registers are therefore essential in any voting system. The fundamental purpose of a voter-registration system is to restrict access to the voting booth to ensure that only those people entitled to vote in a given jurisdiction can do so, but they each vote only once. There are a set of internationally accepted guiding principles to prepare and update the electoral roll. Integrity is the most important guideline which means the registration process should be fair, honest, and strive to allow all eligible persons to be included on the rolls while preventing inclusion of ineligible persons.
Other guiding principles are: (i) inclusiveness - all eligible persons should be allowed to be on the roll without regard to political preference, literacy, ethnicity, etc. (ii) Comprehensiveness - the roll should include all eligible persons and have a special focus on including segments of the population that are often marginalised, including women, youth, persons with disabilities, the poor, remote location, etc. (iii) Accuracy - registration data should be recorded and maintained in a way that guarantees the highest possible degree of accuracy (iv) Accessibility - no one should be required to overcome major obstacles of distance or physical barriers in order to be included (v) Transparency - all processes of enrolling and updating voter records should be open to scrutiny by stakeholders (vi) Credibility - the electoral roll must be compiled and maintained in a way that will create and maintain confidence of all public and political stakeholders.
In updating the electoral roll in line with those guiding principles, ECB should follow the followings suggestions.
Although the ECB has already initiated a few awareness programmes, these are not comprehensive enough to reach everyone all over the country. Moreover, the EC's door to door data collection plan is not clear. For example, in the first phase of the first level, data collectors will make door to door visit from July 25-August 9. This implies that a person, who lives in a village selected for this phase, has to stay at home for 16 days as there is no scope to know on what day the data collector will visit his residence. ECB's awareness programmes must set a specific date for the visit of data collectors and inform the people of a particular village/mahalla.
It is a common allegation that data collectors do not make door to door visits. This results in an inaccurate, non-inclusive and non-credible electoral roll. Only strong and comprehensive monitoring by the ECB can resolve this issue. As per the law, strong actions could be taken against those who fail or neglect to do their duties properly.
The rainy season is not a suitable time for updating the electoral roll in Bangladesh. Although the Electoral Roll Act authorises the ECB to prepare or update an electoral roll at any time, the designated time is January 2 to 31. During monsoon, communication in many parts of the country is disrupted which discourages data collectors to make door to door visits. Hence, the ECB should collect data during the specified time.
Equipments such as laptops and fingerprint scanners used in capturing data were purchased in 2007. In 2014, it was observed that many of these old laptops did not work properly and in many cases, the automated fingerprint identification system was not up to the standard level. The EC, in order to resolve this issue, should purchase new equipment.
In many countries of the world, NGOs are an integral part of voter registration. In fact, in some countries, NGOs are assigned to observe voter registration process officially by the ECB (e.g. in 2007, the Georgian NGO International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy in close collaboration with the Council of Europe (CoE) was assigned to verify door to door visit.) In 2007, our EC signed a MoU with the Election Working Group to conduct awareness. Unfortunately, we have not seen any such initiative by the EC this time around.
India observes January 25 as its National Voters' Day to commemorate the foundation day of the Election Commission of India and also to enhance the participation of voters, especially the youth, in the democratic process. Bhutan celebrates this day on September 15, coinciding with the International Democracy Day. The ECB should initiate such a day in Bangladesh to raise awareness.
ECB has established server stations at the upazila/thana level throughout the country. Although the main purpose of this initiative is to decentralise the voter registration process, the ECB is still not utilising this establishment. Immediate steps for decentralising will help ECB to prepare a credible electoral roll.
Mandatory audit by independent agencies is an integral part of voter registration; this will help the ECB to measure the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the electoral roll. This will also help build public confidence on the electoral process. The ECB should establish a periodic audit that will ensure the accuracy and comprehensiveness of voter data and then publish the results of these audits to demonstrate progress attributable to the ECB's policies and activities.
In 2014, the ECB recruited a huge number of non-election officials as appellate authority for voter registration. As, under current legal provisions, Upazila/Thana election officers are registration officers, the district and regional election officers could be recruited as appellate authority. This will give the registration activities an independent character.
The right of all adult citizens to participate in the affairs of their government is one of the cornerstones of democracy. If conducted well, voter registration confers legitimacy on the process. But "the harsh reality is that any voter register that is accurate today will be less accurate tomorrow unless effective procedures are put into place to keep the register current." Every citizen needs to be made aware about proper registration. A single effort of ECB cannot be enough to bring all eligible voters into the mainstream, hence, the civil society, all government organisations, non-government organisations and concerned stakeholders must be involved to make this initiative successful.
The writer is director of the Election Working Group.