The Election Commission’s (EC) proposal to grant postal voting rights to Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) may get implemented first for voters based in the US, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Germany, France and South Africa, The Indian Express has learnt.
The EC and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) held a meeting last week in which the latter, sources said, agreed to the proposal, on the condition that the Commission should arrange the manpower needed at the India missions abroad to facilitate postal voting for NRIs.
The poll panel has also indicated to the MEA the countries where it would like to have postal voting introduced on a pilot basis. For now, Gulf countries are not part of the proposed pilot given the reservations earlier expressed by the ministry over seeking permission in non-democratic nations to facilitate postal voting for India citizens living there.
According to sources, in the meeting held last week with MEA, the EC is learned to have proposed that a designated officer in the Indian mission download the ballot paper on the voter’s behalf and hand it over. The overseas elector can then mark her preference at the mission, get the self-declaration form attested by the designated officers and hand back the ballot paper and declaration form in a sealed envelope to the mission, which will then dispatch all the envelopes to the election officer concerned.
As first reported by The Indian Express on December 1, the EC approached the Law Ministry last month to permit NRIs to cast their votes overseas through postal ballots. The Commission told the government that it had received representations from the Indian diaspora about facilitating voting through postal votes since travelling to India for elections was a “costly affair”.
The EC 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.
Under ETPBS, which is currently only available to those in the defence services, the postal ballot is dispatched electronically and returned via ordinary mail. To extend this facility to overseas voters, the government only needs to amend the Conduct of Election Rules 1961.
The proposal comes a year after the Bill that proposed to extend proxy voting to overseas Indians lapsed with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha.
Currently, voters residing abroad can only cast their votes in their respective constituencies. This regulation is seen as restrictive as only a little over a lakh Indians living overseas have registered as voters, the maximum being from Kerala.
According to the Commission’s proposal, any NRI interested in voting through the postal ballot in an election will have to inform the Returning Officer (RO) at least five days after the notification of the election. On receiving such information, the RO will dispatch the ballot paper electronically.
The EC first 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 after 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.