- The Election Commission recently signed Memorandums of Understanding with over 1,000 corporate entities to monitor “electoral participation of their workforce” and publish those who do not vote on their websites and notice boards.
- According to ECI, the MoUs are only for voter education and facilitation, not for forcing people to vote or for “naming and shaming.”
GS Paper 2: Election and democracy
Discuss the role and functions of India’s election commission. How does India’s Election Commission ensure free and fair elections? (250 Words)
The most recent developments
- Gujarat’s Chief Electoral Officer recently announced that employees of state public sector units and government departments who do not vote will be tracked as well
- Though the commission cannot compel people to vote, it “wanted to identify workers in large industries who do not vote despite taking advantage of the holiday.”
Concerning compulsory voting
- Compulsory voting refers to a system in which citizens are required by law to vote in elections or to visit a polling place on election day.
- If an eligible voter fails to appear at a polling place, he or she may face fines or community service.
Legislative efforts to make voting compulsory
- The Compulsory Voting Bill, 2019, was introduced in Lok Sabha as a private members bill.
- A similar private member’s bill on mandatory voting was introduced in 2015 and 2009.
- The Karnataka Panchayat Raj Amendment Act, 201, made voting in gramme panchayat elections mandatory.
- The Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Act, 2009 imposes a ‘obligation to vote’ at the municipal corporation, municipality, and Panchayat levels in Gujarat.
Observations of the Supreme Court on Voting
- NOTA decision: In PUCL vs Union of India, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that abstention from voting and negative voting are protected as freedom of expression under fundamental rights (Article 19).
- The judgement also stated that free and fair elections are a fundamental structure of the Constitution and must include the right of an elector to vote without fear of retaliation, duress, or coercion.
- Dismissed compulsory voting petition: In 2009, the Court took the same stance when dismissing a petition to make voting mandatory on the grounds that governments were not representing the majority due to low turnout.
- Justification: The Supreme Court noted that not voting in an election could be due to a conviction or ideological reasons.
- More importantly, many people are unable to vote because of their circumstances, such as daily wage workers, the homeless, and the ill.
In India, citizens have the right to vote
- Constitutional guarantee: India has a non-discriminatory and voluntary voting system. Every citizen over the age of 18 has the right to vote under Article 326 of the Constitution.
- Representation of the Peoples Act, 1951: Section 62 of the Representation of the Peoples Act (RPA), 1951 states that anyone on the electoral roll of a constituency has the right to vote.
Concerns about directives
- Undemocratic: The coercion depicted in the ECI proposal reflects an authoritarian approach that is diametrically opposed to democracy.
- Against privacy: Protecting voters’ identities and maintaining secrecy are essential components of free and fair elections, and the ECI directives violate both.
- Contempt of court: An arbitrary distinction between a voter who votes and a voter who does not vote is a violation of Article 14 of the Constitution (Equality before the law).
- As a result, posting a list of non-voters on a company’s notice board or website is a form of contempt of court.
- Infringes on constitutional provisions: Section 79 D of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 defines “electoral right” as the right of a person to vote or not vote in an election.
- Violates a legal provision: Section 171A (b) of the Indian Penal Code defines “electoral right” as a person’s right to stand as, or not stand as, a candidate, or to withdraw from being a candidate, or to vote or refrain from voting in an election.
- As a result, the law allows citizens to vote but does not compel them to do so.
Arguments against making voting compulsory
- Authoritarian: Compulsion is a stepping stone to totalitarianism.
- Limited options: Compulsory voting forces people to vote even if they do not like any of the candidates on the ballot.
- Unresponsive political system: Because voting is voluntary, parties and candidates must work harder to persuade people of the merits of their policies in order to get voters to the polls.
- Ambedkar’s viewpoint: During the debate on the People’s Representation Bill in Parliament in 1951, Dr. B R Ambedkar rejected the idea of making voting compulsory due to practical difficulties.
- The Dinesh Goswami Committee (1990) and the Law Commission, in their 255th report on Electoral Reforms, both rejected compulsory voting due to practical difficulties in implementation.
Arguments in favour of mandatory voting
- Strengthens democracy: Mandatory voting increases voter turnout and ensures that the democratic process is functioning properly.
- Fair elections: It prevents the socially disadvantaged from being disenfranchised through bribes or covert threats.
- Increased gains: Research has found a link between compulsory voting and improved income distribution.
- Civil duty: Voting is a civic duty comparable to duties such as taxation, so making voting mandatory makes sense. It is also an essential component of civic responsibilities.
- Voter awareness: People of voting age will take politics more seriously and become more involved.
- Legible government: Compulsory voting strengthens the legitimacy of elected representatives because, if turnout is low, candidates can win with less than a majority of the eligible vote.
- Encourages inexperienced candidates: New parties and candidates without wealthy backers can run for office without spending large sums of money just to get voters to the polls.
ECI measures to increase voter turnout
- Since the establishment of a voter education division in 2010, ECI has seen increased voter participation.
- The ECI’s voter education programme aimed to encourage young people to participate in democracy by registering to vote, voting in all elections, and voting ethically, i.e. without inducement.
- In 2010, ECI launched the Systematic Voters Education for Electoral Participation (SVEEP) programme to educate voters and ensure their effective participation in elections.
The way forward
- The noble goal of increased voter participation can be best achieved through systematic voter education, as the ECI has demonstrated in previous initiatives.
- Education, rather than compulsion, provides persuasion, motivation, and facilitation.