Explained: Postal Ballot for NRIs

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At the end of November 2020, Election Commission sent a proposal to the law ministry to amend the Representation of People’s Act, 1951. The letter goes on to demand amendments in the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961.  They claimed that after using the ETPBS voting system successfully for service voters, EC is ready to use it for NRIs. They want to use this system in the upcoming state election of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Puducherry, West Bengal, and Assam. The election in these states is due in May next year. A few months ago, there was a little debate over the use of the supply-chain technology for voting in India. 

What is the Plan of the Election Commission?

The election commission has sent a letter to the Law Ministry of India for making amendments that would help the NRI to vote. This will be done using the ETBPS voting system. This development is not something that has happened overnight. This has happened after years and years of work in the country. The first major amendment happened in 2011 when the Indian parliament amended the Representation of People’s act. This amendment was made to give voting rights to NRIs. The person still needed to physically be present at the polling booth for voting. 

As per the UN reports of 2015, the Indian diaspora is a family of 16 million people. Easier voting options for these people were raised by ex-Rajya Sabha member Naveen Jindal in 2013-14. Around the same time, there were three writs filed in the Supreme court regarding the same. A 12-member committee was made regarding the same in parliament. This committee said no to any form of the online method of voting because of the safety issue. But they also advised that there must be “additional alternative options of the e-postal ballot and proxy voting”. In 2018, a bill was also introduced in Rajya Sabha regarding the same. The union cabinet also passed a proposal on proxy voting rights for NRIs in 2017.

The election commission pointed that section 62 of the representation of people’s act guarantees the vote for every citizen of India. Only those who have been barred from voting by the legislation should not be allowed to vote. Apart from them, everyone should be allowed to vote. Hence, the election commission wants the government to allow NRIs to vote. 

How Will the NRI Vote?

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The proposal was given by the EC, any NRI who wants to vote using the postal ballot needs to come in contact with the Returning officer (RO). They will have to give information to the RO at max. Five days after the notification of the election. Once such information is received by the RO, they must dispatch ballot paper electronically. The NRI voter would then be able to download the ballot paper and print them out. Then they will be using it to vote by marking the preference on the printout. This then had to be attested by an officer appointed by a diplomatic or consular representative of India in which the NRI is residing. However, there is no clarification where this must be sent to. They haven’t made it clear that the ballot will be sent to the Chief electoral officer, Returning Officer or to just drop them at the Indian embassy

What is the ETPBS Voting System?

Earlier there was a system of postal ballot paper used for those who could vote in an election using the normal process. This facility was used for those who were in any form of government job and are unable to vote because of their duty. 

In this process, the postal ballot paper to the service voters was sent by the Returning officer. They used to print the ballot for each service voter that is applicable to vote. Then this ballot paper is put in an envelope inscribed with the address of the record office for each service voter. This process requires a lot of resources, time, cost, and effort. This was a whole physical method where there was no chance of rectification. Because this process involved a lot of human hands, the first one would print the ballot papers; the second one would put them in envelopes. And then they would be sent to the postal office to send them to the respective addresses. So, the biggest problem that arrived was the incorrectness of the electoral roll.

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The accuracy of this whole process depends on the correctness of the data given in the electoral roll. Then the voter would cast his vote using the same ballot paper. This was sent to the concerned officer using the postal services. In the 2014 general election, there was a very low turnout of 3-4% in terms of the service voters. In 2019, there was a sudden change in the voter turnout. As per the election commission, there was a total voter turnout of 60 % in the case of service voters. This happened due to the introduction of the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS). Under this system, the votes are transmitted through electronic means to the service voters. This electronically received postal ballot can be received at any place the voter wants.

This system is a fully secured system that has two layers of security. The secrecy of the vote is also maintained by the use of the very common OTP and the pin system. There is no duplication of votes possible under this system. This system was initially brought up by the commission for the voting by the Defense personnel. But slowly this system was applied to all the service voters and now to the expatriates of India. This system is bringing the motto of “no voter to be left behind”, is getting fulfilled. 

How are Political Parties Reacting? 

This move of the EC has seen a stiff reaction from the CPI(M) general secretary, Sitaram Yechury. He has written a letter to the Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora. Mr. Yechury says that he is in support of giving a voting right to the NRIs. He gives the idea of setting up a voting booth in the Embassy of India in different countries. He draws the fear of manipulation of the electronic votes. He also asked the ECI to call an all-party meeting for discussing the same. He says that he is shocked due to the change in the modus operandi of the election commission. 

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A major concern that is being questioned is why we should not allow all the countries with the facility to vote. Why is their preference in terms of countries where NRIs would be allowed to vote? There is no gulf country in the list of countries where this system will be implemented initially. The EC gives the reason that countries which themselves are not following democracy, implementing this medium would be difficult. Permissions may or may not be granted by that country. This seems an excuse that may have been made without proper research. Meanwhile, the opposition claims that this has been done to manipulate the results of the upcoming elections. They are complaining that BJP is using the EC as a tool to win the election. 

The Postal Ballot or E-Voting? 

In the recent past, these two are the options that the election commission has talked about in terms of voting options. Both of them seem to be very innovative. Both have their pros and cons. The postal ballot method is based on a previously checked ETBPS method. EC has already tried it in terms of service voters. Though the scale at which this will be tried now is grander, EC seems to be confident regarding the same. On the other hand, E-voting has not been tried before this. Hence it is natural that EC would be sceptical regarding the same.

A completely new system needs to be formed to put this method to use. A huge cost will be required at first for forming adequate infrastructure for the same. The cost required in the case of the ETBPS voting system would be less. But the reach of this ETBPS would not be very wide. Even if the person can download and print the ballot, he will have to incur the cost to send it to India or the embassy. And if the person lives at a far distance from the embassy, this cost may increase. But if we choose the e-voting system, the cost of voting would be less. Only an internet connection would be needed. Security and manipulation concerns would exist in both the methods, but keeping in mind the efficiency of the blockchain method; there will be less chance of security breach. 

Conclusion  

It is a great initiative of the Election commission to allow the NRIs to vote. Every citizen of India who has not been barred by the legislation or law should be able to vote. The election commission needs to hold an all-party meeting to first discuss this with all the parties. This would also reduce the chance of conflict. One more thing that EC should have done before thinking about the NRIs was about the immigrants. Every election, lakhs of immigrant workers are unable to vote due to the existing system. Their voting rights should also be given importance. They usually live on hand to mouth basis. They can’t be expected to go and vote in their native places. They would face economical problems, and hence they don’t vote. This is why the EC needs to come up with something new. 

Equal importance should be given to creating a system of online voting. This would decrease the cost of conducting an election in the future. This will also help in reducing the conflicts that arise on voting through EVM. 


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