- GS-2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.
- GS-2: functions and responsibilities of various Constitutional Bodies.
Voting of Overseas Citizens: Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System
Context: On March 25, Union Minister for Law and Justice stated in Lok Sabha that the government was exploring the possibility of allowing online voting for non-resident Indians (NRI).
- Election Commission of India (ECI) in 2020 itself had proposed to extend the facility of postal ballots to eligible NRIs. The postal ballots were to be sent to NRIs electronically after which they will send the ballots back, after choosing their candidate, via post.
How can overseas voters currently vote in Indian elections?
- Prior to 2010, an Indian citizen who is an eligible voter and was residing abroad for more than six months , would not have been able to vote in elections.
- This was because the NRI’s name was deleted from electoral rolls if he or she stayed outside the country for more than six months at a stretch.
- After the passing of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act, 2010, eligible NRIs who had stayed abroad beyond six months have been able to vote, but only in person at the polling station where they have been enrolled as an overseas elector.
- Just as any resident Indian citizen above the age of 18 years is eligible to vote in the constituency where she/he is a resident, overseas Indian citizens are also eligible to do so.
- In the case of overseas voters, their address mentioned in the passport is taken as the place of ordinary residence and chosen as the constituency for the overseas voter to enrol in.
How has the existing facility worked so far?
- From merely 11,846 overseas voters who registered in 2014, the number went up to close to a lakh in 2019. But the bulk of these voters (nearly 90%) belonged to just one State — Kerala.
- Of the 25,606 such voters who actually turned up, 25,534 were from Kerala (mostly from Kozhikode and Malappuram districts).
- Clearly, a very low proportion of eligible overseas residents actually registered or turned up to vote.
- The proviso of having to visit the polling booth in person has discouraged eligible voters from exercising their mandate.
- In the winter session of Parliament in 2017, the government proposed to remove the restriction imposed by Section 20A of the Representation of the People Act, which required them to be physically present to vote in their constituencies.
- The Bill provided for overseas voters to be able to appoint a proxy to cast their votes on their behalf, subject to conditions laid down in the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961.
- The Bill was later passed in 2018, but lapsed with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha.
- The ECI then approached the government to permit NRIs to vote via postal ballots similar to a system that is already used by service voters, which is the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System or ETPBS.
- Service voters are those who have a service qualification. Someone who is either a member of the Armed Forces of the Union, Armed Police Force of a State, or someone who is merely employed under the Government of India.
- The ETPBS method allowed for greater turnout among service voters in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
What is ETPBS and how does it function?
- The Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 was amended in 2016 to allow service voters to use the ETPBS.
- Under this system, postal ballots are sent electronically to registered service voters.
- The service voter can then download the ETPB (along with a declaration form and covers), register their mandate on the ballot and send it to the returning officer of the constituency via ordinary mail.
- The post will include an attested declaration form (after being signed by the voter in the presence of an appointed senior officer who will attest it).
- The postal ballot must reach the returning officer by 8 a.m. on the day of the counting of results.
- The ECI proposed to extend this facility to overseas voters as well.
- For this to commence, the Law Ministry has to amend the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961.
- In the case of NRI voters, those seeking to vote through ETPBS will have to inform the returning officer at least five days after notification of the election.
- The returning officer will then send the ballot electronically via the ETPBS.
- The NRI voter can then register her/his mandate on the ballot printout and send it back with an attested declaration in a process similar to the service voter. Except in this case, the senior officer would be appointed by the Indian diplomatic or consular representative in the resident country of the NRI.
- The ECI has not specified whether the voter should send in the ballot through ordinary post to the returning officer or drop it off at the Indian consular office/embassy, which will then send the envelopes constituency-wise to the returning officers.
- ECI had asked the Law Ministry to explore the possibility of extending postal ballots to overseas electors and not restrict it to any particular country.
Are postal ballots a viable means of voting?
- In March 2021, the Ministry of External Affairs informed ECI that the implementation could require to overcome “huge logistical challenges” and needs “a realistic assessment of requirements”
- A postal ballot mechanism that allows for proper authentication of the ballot at designated consular/embassy offices and an effective postal system should ease this process for NRIs, but rules must be clearly framed for eligibility on the basis of time spent away from the country.
Connecting the dots: