In India, all 18+ have a legal right to cast their vote and elect their leader. All of us do not vote. Some do not believe in the merits of voting, some are too lazy to go to the polling booth. Voting is democracy. It is a responsibility as much it is a right. This is a medium of expression and serves as an agent of change. But, if democracy confers on every adult citizen the right to vote, the right not to vote is also fundamental.
There is a possibility of this voluntary act becoming a legal obligation in future, inviting penalties if the voter abstains. How did this happen and what are the ramifications ? Read further to find out..
How did the issue crop up?
The Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2009 received the Governor’s assent. The Act introduces an ‘obligation to vote’ at the municipal corporation, municipality and Panchayat levels in the state of Gujarat.
The previous Governor Smt. Kamla Beniwal had withheld her assent to the bill. Why did she do so? What were the reasons that she put forth?
1. The Governor had stated that compulsory voting violated:
a. Article 21 of the Constitution and
b. Article 19(1)(A) of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression that also includes the right not to vote.
2. She had also pointed out that the bill was silent on the government’s duty to create an enabling environment for the voter to cast his vote which included updating electoral rolls, distributing voter ID cards on time, ensuring easy access to polling booths.
Present Governor OP Kohli gave his assent to the bill. The act has the following provisions :
1. It shall be duty of a qualified voter to cast his vote at elections to municipal corporation, municipality and Panchayat . This includes the right to exercise the NOTA option.
2. The Act empowers an election officer to serve a voter notice on the grounds that he appears to have failed to vote at the election. The voter is then required to provide sufficient reasons within a period of one month, failing which he is declared as a defaulter voter by an order.The defaulter voter has the option of challenging this order before a designated appellate officer, whose decision will be final.
3. The Act carves out exemptions for certain individuals from voting if he is rendered physically incapable due to illness etc. It also has provision of 50% reservation for women in the institutions of local self-governance.
Right to vote in India
The constitution has adopted the system of universal adult suffrage to secure political justice. In India, the right to vote is provided by the Constitution and the RPA, 1951, subject to certain disqualifications.
- Article 326 of the Constitution guarantees the right to vote to every citizen above the age of 18 .
- Section 62 of the RPA, 1951 states that every person who is in the electoral roll of that constituency will be entitled to vote.
This is a non discriminatory, voluntary system of voting.
Was compulsory voting considered before?
In 1951, during the discussion on the People’s Representation Bill in Parliament, the idea of including compulsory voting was mooted by a member. However, it was rejected by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on account of practical difficulties.
Dinesh Goswami Committee (1990) briefly examined the issue of compulsory voting as a remedy for low voter turn outs and the idea was rejected on the grounds of practical difficulties in its implementation.
A Private Member Bill related to Compulsory Voting was introduced in 2009 which besides making voting mandatory, also cast certain duties upon the state to ensure convenient voting. It was then argued that if compulsory voting was introduced, Parliament would reflect, more accurately, the will of the electorate. However, active participation in a democratic set up should be voluntary, and not coerced.
Compulsory voting in other countries
1. 11 countries around the world make it mandatory for citizens to vote.
a. Australia mandates compulsory voting at the national level. The penalty for violation includes an explanation for not voting and a fine.
b. Several countries in South America including Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia also have a provision for compulsory voting. If one does not vote, the access to state benefit and social security is restricted.
2. Certain other countries like Netherlands and Austria repealed such legal requirements after they had been in force for decades.
3. Other democracies like the UK, USA, Germany, Italy and France have a system of voluntary voting. Usually, they have a high voter turnout.
Merits of Compulsory Voting
♦A high turnout is important for a proper democratic mandate and the functioning of democracy. It confers a higher degree of political legitimacy. People will have a more proactive role in electing their representative. In the last Lok Sabha election, some critics of Modi said he had only 31 percent of the vote, and hence his mandate is not real.
♦ Compulsory voting prevents the deprivation of the right to vote of the socially disadvantaged. Some vulnerable groups like tribals, women in orthodoxical environments could be intimidated into not voting. With compulsory voting, the state would be held responsible for allowing this to happen.
♦ In Australia, to ensure everybody votes, postal ballots, mobile polling booths are used to cater to immobilized citizens. If NRIs can e-vote in future, why not panchayat voters? Ask yourself, if the EC were to bring an EVM machine to your door, would you still not vote?
♦ An increased participation in voting strengthens representative democracy. If a law forces all to participate, it paves way for a healthy democracy. After all, the way we have learnt not to drink and drive, and hopefully we will learn not to pee in public, effective enforcement of compulsory voting can too yield results.
Subhash Kashyap felt there was no constitutional hurdle to compulsory voting and it should be enacted at all levels to ensure larger participation and strengthen democracy.
Jean Dreze felt that compulsion went against democracy but added that responsible citizenship is a necessary condition for democracy and responsible citizens should vote.
Demerits of Compulsory Voting
♦ Voting is a civic right not a civic duty. Compulsory voting may be in violation of the fundamental rights of liberty and expression that are guaranteed to citizens in a democratic state. Every individual should be able to choose whether or not he or she wants to vote. Compelling a citizen to vote is an infringement of their fundamental rights.
♦ The constitutional right to vote may be interpreted to include the right to not vote. In the NOTA judgement Supreme Court had said that the right not to vote is a part of right to express. Democracy is essentially about choice. In a democracy if people are forced to do something then it goes against the basic tenets of democracy.
♦ There is a risk that people may vote at random simply to fulfill legal requirements. Also, citizens may vote with a complete absence of knowledge of any of the candidates.
♦ Some practical problems in the path of Compulsory Voting- How will EC track voters who still don’t vote and how will it assess their reasons for not voting. If the excuses of a million people have to be examined for their validity, it might lead to corruption, and plenty of bureaucratic work (babu-giri). What kind of penalties will be imposed for not voting?
♦ Critics argue that voter education program has increased the voting percentage tremendously and that needs to be pursued instead of making it compulsory.
Election commissioner H.S. Brahma argued that compulsory voting is not practicable in a country as large as India. He questioned “Will you put eight crore voters in jail or impose fines on them? Do we have jails to accommodate eight crore voters?”
Former chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi too has opposed compulsory voting and said – Compulsion and democracy do not go together.The decision to vote or not to vote is an individual’s decision in exercise of his fundamental right of freedom of expression.
Is this an idea whose time has come, or not? Universal suffrage is today considered a sine qua non of democratic rule. But what about universal participation? If we will not exercise our right to vote then how we will come to know who is the better or efficient political leader.On the other hand if people are forced to vote, it is not democratic to force people. In addition to all the foregoing, voting should be compulsory or not, depends upon the development of a country; how much the people are educated, or how much aware they are regarding their right to vote and the value of a vote.