The Election Commission has announced that it will allow those above the age of 65 as well as those under home or institutional quarantine to vote using postal ballots during the Bihar elections. Opposition parties are unhappy with the move and termed it unconstitutional. Here is a look at what are postal ballots and the controversy around it.
What is postal voting?
A restricted set of voters can exercise postal voting. Through this facility, a voter can cast her vote remotely by recording her preference on the ballot paper and sending it back to the election officer before counting.
Who can avail this facility?
Members of the armed forces like the Army, Navy and Air Force, members of the armed police force of a state (serving outside the state), government employees posted outside India and their spouses are entitled to vote only by post. In other words, they can’t vote in person. Voters under preventive detention can also vote only by post.
Special voters such as the President of India, Vice President, Governors, Union Cabinet ministers, Speaker of the House and government officers on poll duty have the option to vote by post. But they have to apply through a prescribed form to avail this facility.
Recently, the Law Ministry, at the Election Commission’s behest, introduced a new category of ‘absentee voters’, who can now also opt for postal voting. These are voters employed in essential services and unable to cast their vote due to their service conditions. Currently, officials of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, Northern Railway (Passenger and Freight) Services and media persons are notified as absentee voters.
Last month, senior citizens above the age of 65 and voters who test positive for COVID19 or are suspected to be COVID-affected were allowed to cast their vote by post.
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How are votes recorded by post?
The Returning Officer is supposed to print ballot papers within 24 hours of the last date of nomination withdrawal and dispatch them within a day. This is done so that the ballot papers reach the concerned voter well before the polling date and she has enough time to send it back before the counting day.
Postal ballot papers for members of the Armed Forces are sent through their record offices. For members of the armed police force of a state (serving outside the state), government employees posted outside India and their spouses, the ballot paper can be sent through post or electronically. For remaining categories ballot papers can be delivered personally or through post.
After receiving it, the voter can mark her preference with a tick mark or cross mark against the candidate’s name. They also have to fill up a duly attested declaration to the effect that they have marked the ballot paper. The ballot paper and the declaration are then placed in a sealed cover and sent back to the Returning Officer before the time fixed for the commencement of counting of votes.
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Why have so many political parties written to Election Commission on postal ballots recently?
Opposition parties are not against postal ballots. The Congress, CPI, CPI(M), Trinamool Congress and the RJD have objected to the EC’s decision to allow voters aged 65 and above and those infected or suspected to be infected with COVID19 to vote via postal ballots.
CPI(M) was the first to object to the change on the ground that the change was affected without consulting political parties. TMC has described it as an “arbitrary, malafide, unconstitutional” move against free and fair elections and CPI has said the move “will lead to malpractices and foul play by those parties which are in power and having resources”.
The Congress has argued that allowing those aged 65 and above to vote by postal ballot violates secrecy in voting as a large segment of the population is uneducated and they might seek assistance from others at numerous stages, ending up disclosing their preferred candidate. This also exposes them to “administrative influence or influence by the Government or the ruling party”.
On Tuesday, the RJD echoed these concerns and said changes to established democratic procedures should be made only after building broad consensus among all stakeholders.
The EC has only responded to the CPI(M) till date. In its letter to party general secretary Sitaram Yechury, the Commission defended itself saying senior citizens are at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19 infection and the decision to allow them to vote via postal ballots was made to “minimise their exposure in public”.
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