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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Right to Reject: SC triggers beginning of electoral reforms

Right to Reject: SC triggers beginning of electoral reforms

Providing voters with an option to cast a negative vote will increase voter turnout, curb bogus voting and nudge political parties to avoid dubious candidates.Providing voters with an option to cast a negative vote will increase voter turnout, curb bogus voting and nudge political parties to avoid dubious candidates.

By Raju Ramachandran 

The citizen of India always had the right not to vote, since voting is not compulsory. And he could exercise this right by simply staying at home. And he could either abstain for "conscientious" reasons, or because he was lazy. 

In the ballot-paper days, the conscientious abstainer could make his point more pro-actively if he wished, by going to the polling station, taking the ballot paper and then returning it unmarked (Rule 41(2), Conduct of Election Rules 1961). He would have voted "negatively", but by the very act of returning, he would have disclosed the nature of his vote. The only option he had, if he wanted to maintain secrecy, was to deliberately cast an invalid vote. 

The problem was aggravated with the introduction of electronic voting machines (EVMs). Now, there would be no green light on the control unit and no "beep" if he did not press a button. This again was a public disclosure of his dissatisfaction with all the candidates. 

The presiding officer was required to record that no vote was cast, and obtain his signature or thumb-impression against the remark (Rule 49-M, Conduct of Election Rules, 1961). This completely deprived him of his right to secrecy, and that is what Friday's landmark Supreme Court judgement was all about. Apart from striking down the offending provisions of the Conduct of Election Rules 1961, the court has directed that a "NOTA" (none of the above) option be provided in the ballot papers and EVMs so that the voter keeps his choice to himself. 

Secrecy of Ballot 

The judgment clears the confusion created by the court's oftexpressed view that the right to vote is not a fundamental right. It reiterates that it is a statutory right. But it makes it clear that once a person acquires the right to vote his fundamental right to freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a) cannot be restricted, and that right extends not only to choosing between rival candidates, but also to indicate his dissatisfaction with all of them. 

In the electoral context, this dissatisfaction also has to be exercised in secret. Secrecy of ballot is essential for free and fair elections and, if a positive vote is secret, so should a negative vote be. Not guaranteeing him the secrecy of the negative vote infringes his freedom of expression. 

There is also the question of the right to equality under Article 14 of the Constitution which the court notices. If the "positive" voter has the privilege of secrecy, so should the "negative" voter. Unconvincingly, the court also brings in "liberty" under Article 21. 

Apart from its significance in the jurisprudence of fundamental rights, the judgement will, in due course, improve the quality of public life. Low voter turnouts have never persuaded parties to put up better candidates. 

Now, a recording of significant numbers of negative votes will ensure that political parties do not choose candidates with doubtful credentials. If the voter knows that his negative vote is going to have an impact, there is greater incentive for him to go to the polling booth to record his protest actively, instead of staying at home. The court rightly believes that this will curb bogus voting. 

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