Topic: General Studies 2:
- Salient features of the Representation of People’s Act
- Powers, functions and responsibilities of various Constitutional Bodies (ECI)
Context: The Election Commission (EC) approached the Law Ministry to permit NRIs to cast their votes from overseas through postal ballots.
The Commission informed the government that it is “technically and administratively ready” to extend the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS) to voters abroad for elections next year in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.
What is the current process of voting for Indian citizens living abroad?
- An NRI can vote in the constituency in which her place of residence, as mentioned in the passport, is located.
- She can only vote in person and will have to produce her passport in original at the polling station for establishing identity.
- Voting rights for NRIs were introduced only in 2011, through an amendment to the Representation of the People Act 1950.
What is current of strength of NRI voters?
- According to a UN report of 2015, India’s diaspora population is the largest in the world at 16 million people.
- Registration of NRI voters, in comparison, has been very low: a little over one lakh overseas Indians registered as voters in India, according to the EC.
- In last year’s Lok Sabha elections, roughly 25,000 of them flew to India to vote.
If approved, how will voting by postal ballots work for NRIs?
- According to the EC proposal, any NRI interested in voting through the postal ballot in an election will have to inform the Returning Officer (RO) not later than five days after the notification of the election.
- On receiving such information, the RO will dispatch the ballot paper electronically.
- The NRI voters will download the ballot paper, mark their preference on the printout and send it back along with a declaration attested by an officer appointed by the diplomatic or consular representative of India in the country where the NRI is resident.
- It’s not clear, at this moment, if the voter will return the ballot paper herself through ordinary post or drop it off at the Indian Embassy, which may then segregate the envelopes constituency-wise and send them to the Chief Electoral Officer of the state concerned for forwarding to the RO
How and when did the proposal originate?
- The EC began to look for options to enable NRIs to vote from overseas after it received several requests, including one from former Rajya Sabha MP and industrialist Naveen Jindal and the Ministry of Overseas Affairs, and three writ petitions were filed by NRIs in the Supreme Court in 2013 and 2014.
- A 12-member committee was set up after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to study mainly three options — voting by post, voting at an Indian mission abroad and online voting.
- The committee ruled out online polling as it felt this could compromise “secrecy of voting”.
- It also shot down the proposal to vote at Indian missions abroad as they do not have adequate resources.
- In 2015, the panel finally recommended that NRIs should be given the “additional alternative options of e-postal ballot and proxy voting”, apart from voting in person.
- Under proxy voting, a registered elector can delegate his voting power to a representative. The Law Ministry accepted the recommendation on proxy voting.
What has been the response of Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)?
- The MEA expressed strong reservations over attesting the declaration that NRI voters will have to send along with their marked ballot papers.
- The MEA had said “diplomatic missions do not have the logistical wherewithal to handle attestation for a large number of overseas electors” and that they would have to seek the permission of the host country for organising such activity, which may be difficult in non-democratic countries
What happened to the proposal to grant proxy voting rights to overseas electors?
- The Union Cabinet passed the proposal on proxy voting rights for NRIs in 2017. The government then brought a Bill amending the Representation of the People Act 1950.
- The Bill was passed by Lok Sabha and was awaiting Rajya Sabha’s approval when it lapsed with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha. This proposal hasn’t been revived yet.
- In its latest letter, the EC pushed only for postal voting rights for NRIs, not proxy voting. To extend the postal voting facility to overseas voters, the government only needs to amend the Conduct of Election Rules 1961. It doesn’t require Parliament’s nod.
At present, postal ballots are allowed for certain categories of voters living in India. The new proposal is for overseas voters.