Compulsory Voting In India: Issues and Analysis

The idea of making voting compulsory in response to declining voter turnout in elections have been debated for many years. This section attempts to cover the issue of compulsory voting and its implementation in detail.

Attempts in the past to make voting compulsory:

The idea of making voting compulsory was rejected by Dr. B R Ambedkar on account of practical difficulties during the discussion on the People’s Representation Bill in Parliament in the year 1951. Since then, many committees have discussed the issue and one such committee was Dinesh Goswami Committee (1990). The Dinesh Goswami Committee briefly examined the issue. The idea was again rejected on the grounds of practical difficulties in implementing.

Private member’s bills for making voting compulsory:

  • In July 2004, the Compulsory Voting Bill, 2004 was introduced as a Private Member Bill by Mr. Bachi Singh Rawat.  The Bill envisaged to make it compulsory for every eligible voter to vote and exemption was provided only in certain cases, like that of illness etc.
  • JP Agarwal in 2009 introduced a Private Member Bill related to compulsory voting.  The bill proposed to make voting mandatory and also cast the duty upon the state to ensure large number of polling booths at convenient places, and special arrangements for senior citizens, persons with physical disability and pregnant women.
  • a private member’s bill on Compulsory Voting moved by Janardan Singh in the year 2015.

Voting pattern of 2014 Lok Sabha elections

The overall turnout in the nine phased 2014 Lok Sabha polls is 66.38%. It is the highest in the history of Lok Sabha elections in the country surpassing the 64.01% which was polled in 1984 elections in the wake of assassination of former PM Indira Gandhi. State-wise the highest turnout was recorded in Nagaland (87.82%) and the lowest turnout was recorded in Jammu and Kashmir (49.52%).

The highest male turnout was reported in Nagaland (88.15%) while the highest female turnout was reported in Lakshadweep (88.42%). Female voter turnout in percentage was reported to be higher than male turnout in 16 States and UTs.

Arguments in favour of compulsory voting:

  • Compulsory voting will strengthen democracy.  It is argued that if compulsory voting was introduced, Parliament will be able to reflect more accurately, the will of the electorate. Compulsory voting will ensure that people take politics more seriously and will begin to take more proactive role. Further, citizens who live in a democratic state have a duty to vote, which is an essential part of that democracy.
  • A person always has the option to press NOTA button if he does not like the candidates who are contesting the elections.
  • Compulsory voting benefits the prevention of extremist and special interest groups from grabbing power. Otherwise if less number of people vote then it becomes easier for the special interest groups to motivate a small section of people and influence the outcome of the election process.
  • Financial resources can be saved as Election Commission no longer needs to spend money in convincing people about the need to vote.

Arguments against making voting compulsory

  • Practical difficulties such as remoteness of polling booths, difficulties faced by certain classes of people like daily wage labourers, nomadic groups, disabled, pregnant women etc. in casting their vote. There is a need for government to create an enabling environment for the voter to cast his vote.  This included updating of electoral rolls, timely distribution of voter ID cards to all individuals and ensuring easy access to polling stations etc.
  • Compulsory voting may be in violation of the fundamental rights of liberty and expression that are guaranteed to citizens in a democratic state. So every individual should be able to choose whether or not he or she wants to vote. The right to cast one’s vote is only a statutory right, the Supreme Court has recognised that the act of choosing one candidate over another falls under the freedom of expression guaranteed in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Therefore, active participation in a democratic set up must be voluntary, and not coerced.
  • The expenditure increases with enforcing compulsory voting. For instance, the cost per voter in 2009 LokSabha elections is Rs.12. If in case a large number of voters who do not want to vote presses NOTA button, then it becomes an unnecessary expenditure without any decisive outcome on the election.

Attempts of state governments to make voting compulsory

Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Act, 2009
  • Gujarat became the first state to make voting compulsory in local bodies (municipal as well as panchayat polls) with the enactment of the Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2009.
  • It shall now be the duty of a qualified voter to cast his vote at elections to each of these bodies.
  • Also, the Act contains a provision to fix the reservation for women in local bodies at 50 per cent.
  • The Act carves provides for certain exemptions for certain individuals from voting if
    • He/ She is rendered physically incapable due to illness etc.;
    • He/ She is not present in the state of Gujarat on the date of election; or
    • for any other reasons to be laid down in the Rules.
  • The Act empowers an election officer to serve a notice if a person has 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”. According to the Act, if a voter failed to vote for reasons other than those permitted in the rules he may be declared a “default voter”. The defaulter voter can challenge this order before a designated appellate officer, whose decision will be final.
  • The government had announced Rs 100 as fine to those who fails to vote without proper reason.
  • It had been rejected by earlier governor Kamla Beniwal stating that it violates Article 21 of the Constitution and the principles of individual liberty.
  • The law was passed in 2009 and again in 2011 when Narendra Modi was the chief minister. Former Governor KamlaBeniwal did not give her assent. Finally it got nod from Governor O.P. Kohli.
Criticism:
  • Section 79(d) of the Representation of the People Act says: that “electoral right” includes the right “to vote or refrain from voting at an election”.
  • Recently the Gujarat High Court stayed its implementation after a public interest litigation challenging the constitutional validity of the Act.
  • Constitutional expert and former election commissioner Hs Brahma had dubbed the law as “impractical” and “impossible to implement” in the country.
Karnataka Panchayat Raj Amendment Act, 2015:
  • This Act like the Gujarat Local Authorities Laws Act, 2009, makes voting compulsory in gram panchayatelections.Although voting was made compulsory,violations will not attract legal sanctions.
  • This Act has made voting compulsory in the elections to 5,844 gram panchayats in Karnataka on May 2015.
  • The new Act has 50 per cent reservation for women.
  • According to the state government, voting was made compulsory to create more awareness among the people about the importance of exercising one’s franchise.

Setback

According to post poll data, the Act has failed to serve its purpose. There has been no increase, not even a marginal one, in the voter turnout as compared to the previous gram panchayat elections (2010). The main reason according to some is the absence of punitive clause for those voters who failed to vote made others to take this Act lightly.

Stand of Election Commission on compulsory voting

Election Commission filed an affidavit in July 2015 in response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that wants a direction to the commission to frame guidelines for making voting mandatory.

In the affidavit, the Election Commission had informed the Supreme Court that:

  • Right to Vote was not a fundamental right but statutory.
  • Voting cannot be made compulsory since as it would violate the constitutional right of freedom of speech and expression.
  • “The decision taken by the voter after verifying the credentials of the candidate either to vote or not to vote is his right of expression under the constitution. Freedom of expression means not only right to vote but would also include the right not to vote,” read the affidavit.

While States has the right to adopt laws in tune with the aspirations of its people, it would be better to evolve a wider consensus before implementing the legislation such as this, which has far-reaching consequences.

Compulsory voting in other countries

Compulsory voting laws were introduced in Belgium in 1892, Argentina in 1914, Australiain 1924. Several other countries like Brazil, Bolivia, Singapore, Cyprus etc. have made voting compulsory for their citizens. Certain other countries like The Netherlands, Austria, Fiji, Italy, Venezuela have repealed such legal requirements after they had been in force for decades.

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