During the recent monsoon session, Lok Sabha passed a Bill that proposes to allow non-resident Indians to use proxies to cast votes on their behalf in Indian elections. How have NRIs been voting so far, and what does the Bill propose to change?
What proxy voting means
Voting in an Indian election can be done in three ways — in person, by post and through a proxy. Under proxy voting, a registered elector can delegate his voting power to a representative. This was introduced in 2003 for elections to the Lok Sabha and Assemblies, but on a limited scale. Only a “classified service voter” — a definition that includes members of the armed forces, BSF, CRPF, CISF, General Engineering Reserve Force and Border Road Organisation — is allowed to nominate a proxy to cast vote on his behalf in his absence. A classified service voter can also vote by postal ballot.
The Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, 2017, proposes to amend Section 60 and extend the facility of proxy voting to Indian voters living abroad. Introduced in Lok Sabha last December and passed last week, it now needs Rajya Sabha’s approval. “… The said rules (Registration of Electors Rules, 1960) stipulate the physical presence of the overseas electors in the respective polling station in India on the day of polling. This causes hardship to the overseas electors in exercising their franchise by being present in India on the day of polling,” reads Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s statement on the objective of the Bill.
According to a UN report of 2015, India’s diaspora population is the largest in the world at 16 million. Registration of NRI voters, in comparison, has been low. In 2014, 11,846 people were registered as “overseas electors”, of whom 11,448 were registered in Kerala. According to figures tabled by the government during the winter session of Parliament, the number of NRI voters has risen to 24,348, including 23,556 in Kerala.
Nomination of proxies
It is not clear yet how NRIs will nominate their proxies. The Election Commission will lay down the procedure by amending the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, after the Bill is passed by both Houses of Parliament.
A “classified service voter” belonging to the armed forces or a paramilitary force, on the other hand, can appoint a proxy as long as the proxy, too, is a registered voter in the same constituency. The proxy is appointed through Form 13F, signed by the “classified service voter” and the appointed proxy before a first class magistrate or notary or the commanding officer of the service voter. The form has to be submitted to the returning officer of the seat before the nomination of candidates closes. The proxy will continue to represent the service voter for all polls until the service or the appointment is revoked.
Overseas voting, elsewhere
Many countries allow expatriates to vote, with different rules. For instance, a British citizen living abroad can either travel back to the UK to vote in person, or vote by post, or nominate a proxy to do so, but this is subject to eligibility rules that factor in the expatriate’s period of stay abroad and the period for which the voter was registered in the UK. Those who were minors at the time of leaving the country can also vote as long as their parent or guardian was registered to vote in the UK.
American expatriates can vote for federal office candidates in primary and general elections, irrespective of how long they have been living abroad. Once registered, an overseas Amercian voter will receive a ballot paper by email, fax, or download, depending on the US state. This has to be returned the same way as received.
How Bill came about
The Election Commission decided to look for options to enable NRIs to vote from overseas after it received several requests, including from former Rajya Sabha MP and industrialist Naveen Jindal and the Ministry of Overseas Affairs, while three writ petitions were filed by NRIs in the Supreme Court in 2013 and 2014. A 12-member committee was set up in 2014 to study mainly three options — voting by post, voting at an Indian mission abroad and online voting.
The committee ruled out online polling as this could compromise “secrecy of voting”. It also ruled out the proposal to vote at Indian missions abroad as they do not have the resources to organise polling. In 2015, the panel finally recommended that NRIs be given the “additional alternative options of e-postal ballot and proxy voting”, apart from casting their vote in person. E-postal ballot is a ballot paper that is sent to the voter electronically and returned to the returning officer by post. The Law Ministry accepted the recommendation on proxy voting and the Cabinet passed the proposal to amend the law last August.
How parties stand
In 2014, the 12-member Election Committee committee consulted six national parties, of which four attended — BJP, Congress, CPI(M) and CPI. Only the BJP was in favour of proxy voting. Others feared that the proxy voter may not vote as per the wishes of the overseas voter. “Further it suffers from an inherent problem of ‘trust deficiency’ and violates the principle of ‘secrecy of voting’ and ‘free and fair elections’,” states the EC report quoting views of political parties opposed to the idea. The government responded to this fear in Parliament stating that the EC will frame rules in such a way that if proxy voting is misused, it will lead to cancellation of the mandate. Former election commissioners too have expressed apprehensions in the past that proxy voting for NRIs could prove a logistical nightmare for the EC.