The case – Srinivas Kodali vs Election Commission of India – is important because it does not simply call for remedying the deletion of voters from the rolls, but raises a far deeper issue pertaining to accountability in the electoral process: that of “algorithmic transparency”.
In December last year, there were strong protests in Telangana during the assembly elections, when it came to light that as many as 30 lakh voters (10% of the electorate) had been struck off the rolls during a 2015 “clean up” exercise by the Election Commission. It was a number large enough to vitiate the legitimacy of the electoral process. Events after that indicate that Telangana was not a one-off. A recent survey in Uttarakhand also found voter deletions on a substantial scale. Similar results have been reported from Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan. Reports also indicate that the voter deletions have disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable constituencies of citizens, and who, therefore, will have the most difficulty in having the errors rectified.
With the 2019 general elections upon us, the issue must be addressed urgently, in order to preserve the sanctity of the democratic process. In this context, an ongoing case before the High Court of Hyderabad assumes great significance, as it enables the Election Commission to do just that. The case — Srinivas Kodali v Election Commission of India — is important because it does not simply call for remedying the deletion of voters from the rolls, but raises a far deeper issue pertaining to accountability in the electoral process: that of “algorithmic transparency”.
What is the meaning of “algorithmic transparency”? In the Telangana case, for example, the deletion of voters has been attributed to the linking of Aadhaar with voter IDs back in 2015. This is one example of a more widespread phenomenon: the increasing use of opaque technology, in the context of elections, to “clean up” voter rolls by ensuring that only genuine, registered voters can vote, and that fake names are struck off the rolls.Read more
While the intention is laudable, and indeed necessary, Telangana’s example shows that a blind application of technology to determine sensitive issues such as citizens’ rights can have the effect of eroding democracy rather than safeguarding it. For this reason, Kodali’s petition asks that the process through which this happens be made transparent, so that it can be publicly scrutinised and audited. This requires three things: first, that the algorithm of the software used by the Election Commission to clean up voter rolls should be made public; secondly, that the data audit log of deletions should be revealed; and thirdly, that the source code (that is, the technical instructions on the basis of which a software runs) used to conduct a “de-duplication” of the voter rolls should be made public.
This may sound dry and technical; but its consequences are important and profound for democracy. We are living in an age in which, increasingly, decisions that were once taken by human beings are being outsourced to machines, software, and algorithms. However, machines are built by humans, and therefore come with human fallibilities; and when an individual’s right has been violated by a decision taken by a machine, there is no scope for an appeal to a higher body.
For this reason, technologists and human rights lawyers from all over the world have called for two fundamental principles: the first is a “right to an explanation” — that is, if I am deprived of a right by an automated decision, taken by a machine, then I have the right to be given an explanation for how that decision has been taken; and the second, complementary right is that of a right to the source code — that is, access to the mechanics of how that decision is taken, so that it can be examined for compliance with basic human rights.
There is now a worldwide debate around these issues, and in certain jurisdictions — such as the European Union — the right to an explanation has been codified into law. Kodali’s petition gives the Indian courts an opportunity to join that debate, and to ensure that in the age of machines, and algorithms, basic human rights are not sacrificed at the altar of an unaccountable and non-transparent software.
Gautam Bhatia is an advocate in the Supreme Court