The Election Commission of India (EC) wants to help NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) to vote in Indian elections, which is a good idea. It will be tried as a pilot project in 2021 across eight countries - USA, UAE, Australia, Canada, UK, Malaysia, Kenya and Singapore.
There are reportedly 1 crore NRIs across the world, of which roughly 60 lakh are eligible to vote.
But there is a problem.
The procedure suggested by the EC for NRIs to vote via ballot papers will not happen in the presence of polling agents representing political parties. And this is a violation of The Representation of The People Act, 1951 and The Conduct of Election Rules, 1961.
How Will NRIs Cast Their Votes?
First let’s sum up the ballot paper voting procedure that EC has in mind for NRIs:
Any NRI wanting to vote from overseas applies to EC’s Returning Officer via the EC’s website.
The Returning Officer sends ballot papers electronically to a Nodal Officer, a government official stationed at each Indian High Commission or Embassy.
On polling day, the voter goes to the Embassy or High Commission to cast his or her vote.
The Nodal Officer downloads the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot or ETPB using a secure OTP, and hands it to the voter after verifying the voter’s identity.
The voter ticks his or her choice on the ballot paper. The Nodal Officer seals the ballot paper in an envelope and puts it into a ballot box.
When voting is over, the Nodal Officer removes the envelopes from the ballot box, sorts them out by constituency and sends them back to the EC's Returning Officers in India via diplomatic mail.
Absence of Polling Agents Raises Doubt About NRI Voting Process: Expert
The Election Commission intends to mirror the voting process followed in India for NRIs as well. But the absence of polling agents representing political parties raises questions.
Both, The Representation of The People Act, 1951 and The Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, underline that polling agents are crucial to ensure free and fair elections.
The Representation of The People Act clearly says,
“If Polling Agents are absent during any acts that need to happen in their presence, then those acts cannot be considered validated…”
These ‘acts’ for which a polling agent’s presence is a must are well defined in The Conduct of Election Rules, 1961. For instance -
- Before the poll starts, the Presiding Officer shall show all polling agents that the ballot box is empty, along with a marked copy of the electoral roll of voters.
- Any polling agent may challenge the identity of a voter by depositing two rupees in cash with the Presiding Officer for each such challenge.
- After the poll, the ballot box shall be closed, sealed and secured and placed in full view of the Presiding Officer and the polling agents.
So if Polling Agents are not going to be present when NRIs vote – how will any political party be assured that the voting in any of these Indian embassies are free and fair?
Jagdeep Chhokar, founder member of the Association for Democratic Reform told The Quint,
“Polling agents must be present to confirm the identity of every voter. This is the existing law. Without this the purity of the election will be in serious doubt.”
Now the Election Commission could say it is logistically almost impossible to have polling agents representing political parties in every Indian Embassy across the world. So then how should NRIs vote from their respective countries?
Former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi told The Quint,
“Election Commission can tell a few National Political Parties to deploy polling agents in different embassies for a fair election process. Why it has been not done, I don’t know. The issue of NRI voting is complex, with many imponderables.”
One solution could be for NRIs to vote in the same way that government employees posted abroad vote.
How does that happen?
They receive a ballot paper directly from their Returning Officer, which they fill up, seal and physically mail back to the Returning Officer. No third person, no government appointed Nodal Officer involved.
So, could NRIs vote like government employees posted abroad?
“NRIs cannot vote like government employees because there is a possibility of NRIs being bought over or forced by a political party to vote in their favour.”SY Quraishi, former Chief Election Commissioner
But a few questions remain.
Why has the EC added a government-appointed Nodal Officer to the NRI voting process?
Also, why have polling agents been dropped entirely? In their absence, how will NRI voting remain free and fair?
We have written to the Election Commission for their response to these questions. We will update the article as and when receive their response.