Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Compulsory Voting in India

Compulsory Voting

On the 16th of December 2009. Gujarat government announced that it will pass an Act on the Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2009.The amendment will voting compulsory for all citizens of Gujarat to vote to elections to a self governing body. This will make the right to vote, a duty. It will apply to all qualified voters Municipal Corporations, Municipalities, district, talukas and village panchayats. When it is done. Gujarat will be the first state in India to do such a thing. It will be implemented for the first time in October 2010 during the Municipal elections in Ahmedabad.

I am not taking sides here. I just want to point out the pros and cons of the action.

Voting in India is not compulsory. We usually have 50-60% turnout. We also see some candidates winning and being elected even though they have just received only 10-20% votes of the total registered voters. I mean how can someone be chosen to rule over the constituency even when he/she has received only 1/5 of the total votes. Most people don’t vote because of two main reasons. First, they think that their votes don’t count for much. A single vote won’t make a difference. Second, they think that none of the contestants are good enough. I read it in a book named Freakonomics that a very very low number of elections are won by a margin of one vote. Does that mean that your vote doesn’t matter ? No if everyone thinks like that then it will be very tough to choose good candidates. Why should people be forced. They know that voting for a good candidate is in turn going to benefit them only. They have to understand that. If we consider them as adults and give them the right to vote then we should treat them like adults and let them make the decision on whether to vote or not. To make my point more clear I would like to quote a analogy.

The Lifeboat Analogy.

You are one of twenty two people who are stranded on a life boat after the pleasure cruiser sinks.
Yes there is enough room and supplies for all of you for the immediate future so no decision has to be made as to who has to be thrown overboard. However there is one problem: the navigator has gone down with the ship and no one actually knows which direction to row to ultimately reach the shipping lanes. Even though no one knows for sure, eleven members of those on board have formulated ideas. Some think they can operate the sextant which has been saved, some believe they can tell which way to go by the currents, some by the sun, and some by the prevailing winds. The problem is that there is not general consensus from all there theories, and existing provisions will only allow for one attempt. It is ultimately decided that a vote has to be taken to decide whose theory will be accepted to decide the course to follow. Because the decision may well result in the life or death of everyone on board it is decided that everyone will have the right to vote. Even though you yourself have come to no theory, you decide to vote with one person who, to you, gives the general impression of being slightly more astute and knowledgeable that the other amateurs navigators. This leaves the remaining ten occupants. Not only do they have no idea which is the best direction for rescue, they also share equal faith in all of those who have suggested theories. Therefore because they fear their vote may lead to the wrong decision, they have decided to abstain from voting.

Will you allow the ten to abstain from voting or will you insist that, because lives are at risk, they must partake in the vote?

On the other hand, let us consider the scenario where voting is compulsory.

So its election day and you HAVE to vote. Sounds weird. We are so used to voting being a right that we cannot grasp the thought of it being a duty. The first question that comes to your mind is,” Why would someone want to do that ?” .

The reasons given are :

“It is a central conservative insight that democracy confers both rights and responsibilities. Attending a polling booth on election day is the mildest possible responsibility”

“Voting is a civic duty”

“Obligations may be imposed on individual for the benefit of the society generally”

Many countries like Australia, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Egypt to name a few have compulsory voting.

Government of Gujarat is thus not the first to come up with the concept. On April 17, 2009 the Supreme Court of India had dismissed a plea to make voting compulsory. The plea was filed by Atul Sarode from Savda district in Maharashtra. He wanted to make voting compulsory for all elections. His plea also mooted the idea of not allowing any one to represent a constituency unless he/she fails to get a minimum of 51% of votes. If that doesn’t happen then there should be re-elections. We cannot choose the best from the worst. After all it’s a matter of running our constituency. We do not want some random person to govern us. We want responsible people. Why can we not have re-elections ? Some say that it is too expensive. I say if he/she is going to govern us then we definitely should take all precautionary measures available to see to it that we choose only the best. The plea also mooted the idea of e-voting.

A bench of Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and Justice P. Sathasivam dismissed the plea and observed that a greater voter turnout could be ensured only by increasing people’s awareness. They also observed that voter turnout of 60% was satisfactory. (?!?!?!)

Well, this is the state of our India.

We also have a No vote provision in our constitution. Article 49-O of The Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 gives the right to its citizens to not vote for any of the candidates even after going to the pooling booth. This provision has been very nicely hidden by our politicians. I have never seen a News Channel run a report on this provision. Even when it comes to the papers, it just a small article stating the basic things. Even poll booth volunteers don’t know what steps are to be taken when someone wants to exercise this right.

The Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2009. allows negative voting. The manner of negative voting and its impact on other candidates will be worked out by the state government through special rules framed later. It is also under consideration that all candidates will be disqualified if negative voting is the highest.

In countries that have compulsory voting, there are certain sanctions imposed if people fail to vote. Some of them are :
  • He has to give a legitimate explanation for not voting. ( I think this can be easily abused)
  • A fine is imposed on him/her. The amount of fine depends from country to country.
  • It can also lead to imprisonment. No cases have been filed under this but sometimes when a person does not pay fine even after repeated warnings then he is sentenced to imprisonment. Although the reason for imprisonment is given as failure to pay fine and not failure to vote.
  • Other sanctions are like in Belgium, it is difficult to get a job in public sector if you have not voted. There are also social sanctions, in Mexico it is difficult to get a day care place for your child if you are a non-voter. Salary of government employees is sometimes stopped if they don’t vote.
Gujarat government is also thinking of something like that. An official has said that people who do not vote will be deprived on Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards, government service and subsidized loan. Defaulters will be served a one month notice and in that time they have to give a reason to the election commissioner for not voting. The exempted categories will include people who are physically incapable due to illness, or absent on the date of election from the country or the state of Gujarat.

India is a land where Bills and their corresponding Acts can sometimes be so different that it’s difficult to find something common between them. We can just hope that this time they come up with a logical Act.

Long live Democracy.

P.S. - This post first appeared on my blog on Legally India: The Concept of Compulsory Voting


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