NID registration bill: Ambiguity about preparing voter list

Photo shows two women holding their NID cardsFile photo

The government is planning to enact a law that would transfer the national identity card service to the Ministry of Home Affairs, a move that has raised concern due to the lack of proper consultation with the election commission. Two sections of the National Identity Registration Bill 2023, presented in Parliament, have sparked questions.

Section 15 of the bill has raised concerns among Election Commission (EC) officials, as it appears to require them to register voters using information from the home ministry . However, under the Election Commission Act, they are meant to have complete independence in voter registration. 

If the bill is passed by the parliament, it will repeal the National Identity Registration Act, 2010, which currently grants the EC authority over national identity card services. Section 30 of the bill states that upon the repeal of the previous law, all information related to National Identity Registration and National Identity Card (NID) held by the Election Commission and collected by the EC will be transferred to the 'registrar’ responsible for NID registration. 

The bill stipulates that the government will appoint a 'registrar' to issue national identity cards, and the EC will obtain the necessary information from the registrar based on their requirements. To facilitate this, there will be a dedicated cell under the office of the registrar, where one or more employees of the EC will carry out their duties.

However, this provision outlined in the bill has also raised concern within the EC, as the government did not engage in specific discussions with the election commissioners before presenting the bill in parliament. 

Election commissioner Rasheda Sultana, who oversees the legal affairs of the election commission, stated that, to the best of her knowledge, there have been no discussions with the home ministry regarding the drafting of this law. She also indicated that she lacks detailed information about the bill. 

Officials of the EC expressed concern about potential confusion if the bill, introduced in parliament on 4 September, is passed. Although the voter list and national identity card are distinct entities, the national identity card database serves as the primary foundation for the EC's voter list. If the new law is enacted before the upcoming parliamentary elections, this database will be transferred to the 'Registrar's Office' under the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Consequently, the EC will lose direct legal control over this database, and they will need to request necessary information from the registrar. Given the current political landscape, this could raise questions and doubts about the accuracy of the voter list, especially as the process of printing voter lists with photos for 300 constituencies is set to begin immediately after the election schedule is announced. 

However, the bill specifies that the law will come into effect on a date determined by the government through a gazette notification. In other words, if the law is passed, the government can enforce it even after the national elections. 

In 2007, the EC initiated the process of creating a voter list with photographs, and national identity cards were issued to individuals becoming voters since that time. A separate law was enacted for this purpose in 2010.

However, the government is currently seeking to bring these related services under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Home Affairs. To accomplish this, the 'National Identity Registration Bill 2023' has been introduced in Parliament and is expected to pass this week. 

According to Election Commission sources, the EC does not object to the transfer of National Identity Card (NID) services to the home ministry because NID and the voter list are entirely distinct entities. However, the Commission does express objections and dissatisfaction with two sections of the proposed law.

There was no in-depth discussion with the ministry  concerning the process for transferring the vast NID database. Under the Voters List Act, the EC is responsible for preparing voter registrations and lists. However, Section 15 of the bill raises concerns among EC officials, as it appears to instruct the EC to list voters using information from the Ministry of Home Affairs. 

Home minister Asaduzzaman Khan introduced the bill in parliament on 4 September, stating that children born now will be assigned an ID number from birth. This legislation will not hinder the voter list process. When a citizen reaches 18 years of age, they will receive a notice informing them of their voter status, and their name will be added to the voter list.  

Jatiya Party lawmaker Fakhrul Imam raised objections to the bill's presentation in parliament and questioned the basis on which the election commission will conduct elections. He inquired whether the people would accept a list created by the government. 

According to EC sources, it remains unclear whether the election commission will register voters based on information received from the home ministry in the future or if it will continue to register voters according to current legislation. 

Badiul Alam Majumdar, Secretary of Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (SHUJAN), expressed concern about the independence of the election commission if its officials work within the organisation under the home ministry. If the EC database is transferred to the home ministry prior to the election, the voter list would remain questionable.