In a previous article, we looked at how personal data illegally collected by the NGO Chilume can impact the privacy and safety of voters as well as affect the integrity of our elections. The News Minute (TNM) and Pratidhvani reported that workers and external vendors, hired by Chilume, posed as booth level officials (BLOs), complete with identity cards signed by BBMP election officials, to illegally collect voter data.
This is the second part of a series looking deeper into the implications of the Bengaluru voter data theft controversy.
Part I: Illegal voter data collection: Does it really matter?
Part II: Illegal voter data collection: How can we protect our privacy? (this article)
Part III: Illegal voter data collection: Frontline workers of election management
TNM also reported that residents of the Shivajinagar ward alleged that unknown persons were posing as BLOs and threatening to delete voters off the rolls even though the voters were able to prove that they were residing in that constituency. The investigations by TNM and Pratidhvani have also revealed that such illegal voter data collection is not a recent phenomenon.
The voter verification process
While the Chief Election Officer-Karnataka presides over three separate investigations into the issue, can citizens safeguard their private information and ensure that their right to vote is not impacted? It is important that we understand the voter verification process and the role of different electoral officials in the city.
The BBMP Revenue Department is in charge of managing election logistics, including electoral rolls, for all 28 assembly constituencies in the city and reports to the Chief Election Officer (CEO) Karnataka. Electoral Registration Officers (ERO) and Assistant Electoral Registration Officers (AERO) are in charge of approving the registration of new voters in various constituencies while the BLOs are in charge of ensuring that voter rolls are up to date at each polling booth.
Anjali Saini, volunteer with the Million Voters Rising campaign in the Mahadevapura constituency, advises that everyone should check if their name is on the voter roll periodically, particularly before an election. This becomes even more important as the BBMP has announced that around six lakh voter entries have been struck off the list because they were “demographically similar.”
Voters can check if their name is on the roll on the National Voters’ Service Portal website here or on the CEO-Karnataka’s website here. “Voter verification is a continuous process. It is important to keep checking if you are registered,” says Anjali. She also suggests that voters avoid registering using paper forms if possible. If you register online (or help someone else register online), there is an automatic reference number that is created. “It then becomes very easy for election officers to track your application and for you to ensure that it is not just lost.”
Preventing privacy loss and personal data misuse
The Chilume case revealed two major points of concern for voters. One, the possible loss of privacy, and use of personal data, including identifying information for political campaigns. Two, the potential misuse of voter data to disenfranchise voters. With respect to the first concern, activists suggest that citizens should familiarise themselves not only with the process but also the officers in charge.
BLOs carry the electoral lists for that area. They can use that to verify only the information already provided to the Election Commission of India while registering as a voter. They can check if your name, photograph, house number, any valid identification such as Aadhaar, Passport or Driving license matches the details provided on the roll.
In the current case, Chilume collected personal data such as employment history, phone numbers, and even political opinions. None of this is required for voter ID verification. BLOs do not require your phone number and are not in charge of linking your Aadhaar to your Voter ID card. Moreover, BLOs are not affiliated with any political parties. They should not ask about a voter’s political leanings.
“It is good [for citizens] to know the BLOs for their area,” advises PG Bhat, voter reforms activist and software engineer. Bhat reminds us that voters in the same household may have different polling booths and each polling booth would have a different BLO. So, check not only if your name is on the voter roll, but also which polling booth you need to go to and the BLO in charge of that booth. A list of BLOs for your area can be found on the CEO-Karnataka’s website here.
Officers in charge
Anjali is all too familiar with the fear and frustration that citizens undergo when their names are struck off the voter list. She reminds voters that BLOs cannot strike voters off the electoral list. They can only prepare a list pointing out errors, duplications, or missing voters from a booth. It is up to the ERO and AERO to do this and citizens should familiarise themselves with these officers as well. “And the ERO and AEROs are usually the same people we meet while paying property taxes,” she points out.
Anjali has experienced the value of being familiar with the officers in charge, while conducting voter registration drives in her constituency. Repeated interactions with the EROs and AEROs have led to a few wrongful deletions in the constituency according to the activist. “We struggled a few years ago. But now the officers are much more responsive to our concerns,” she says. You can find the contact information for EROs and AEROs for your constituency here.
However, this information is not always updated. We have found several discrepancies in the BLO list published on the CEO-Karnataka website. Some BLOs listed did not respond to phone calls while others said they were no longer working as BLOs. A detailed report on this issue will be published soon. In the meantime, Anjali offers one very important piece of advice. “When in doubt, just refuse [to give out personal details],” she says. If you are unable to verify if the officer at your doorstep is genuine, she advises not to reveal any private information.