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Sunday, Oct 02, 2022

Right to make you vote: The debate over it, and the arguments against

Arguing that voting was a right and not a compulsory duty, S P Singh Baghel, Minister of State for Law and Justice, said he “agreed with the sentiment of the members on compulsory voting but it was not practical to penalise people for not exercising their franchise” and that it might be “against the spirit of democracy”.

Women show the indelible ink marked after casting vote for the state Assembly elections. (Express File Photo by Rohit Jain Paras)

A Bill proposing compulsory voting was withdrawn on Friday, with the government saying it was not practical to implement its provisions.

Arguing that voting was a right and not a compulsory duty, S P Singh Baghel, Minister of State for Law and Justice, said he “agreed with the sentiment of the members on compulsory voting but it was not practical to penalise people for not exercising their franchise” and that it might be “against the spirit of democracy”.

The Compulsory Voting Bill was a private member’s Bill, introduced by Janardhan Singh ‘Sigriwal’, BJP MP from Maharajganj in Bihar, in 2019, to make “democracy more participatory and check the use of black money”.

The Bill proposed that it should be “compulsory for every voter who is eligible to vote (in) an election to exercise his right to vote when called for by the Election Commission”, except in cases where they were “physically incapacitated from an illness of a serious nature” or if the Election Commission or “an authority empowered by the Election Commission… is satisfied that there are genuine and bona fide grounds for such exemption”.

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The Bill went on to recommend action in case a person failed to exercise the right to vote.

‘Sigriwal’ had made a similar attempt in the 16th Lok Sabha in 2014. Earlier this year, Law Minister Kiren Rijiju, in a written reply, clarified that “there is no proposal to bring a law to enforce compulsory voting in the country”.

This is not the first time proposals regarding compulsory voting have come up.

* Debate in House

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Compulsory voting format was first considered by Parliament in 1950 during the enactment of the Representation of the People Act. It was, however, rejected by members, including B.R. Ambedkar, on account of practical difficulties.

Consequently, Article 326 of the Constitution mandates the right to vote for a citizen above 18 and states that every person on the electoral roll of a constituency will be entitled to vote under Section 62 of the Representation of the People Act.

* Committees on electoral reforms

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The Tarkunde Committee for electoral reforms, constituted in 1974, was one of the first to raise the issue, noting: “It is desirable that compliance with the duty to cast one’s vote should be brought about by persuasion and political education, rather than compulsion. Moreover, the implementation of a law of compulsory voting is likely to be very difficult and may lead to abuse.”

This was also echoed by the Dinesh Goswami Committee (1990). While “one of the members” felt “that the effective remedy for low percentage of voting is to introduce the system of compulsory voting,” the committee at large, did not “favour the suggestion because of practical difficulties involved in its implementation”.

Subsequently, in 2001, a consultation paper of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, set up by the NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, said that it would “not be feasible or advisable at present … [given that] in our situation, there may be several management and legal enforceability problems and difficult questions of penalty for not voting”.

* The many Bills

In 2004, the late BJP Uttarakhand MP Bachi Singh Rawat proposed a compulsory voting Bill. “Remoteness of polling booths, difficulties faced by certain classes of people like daily wage labourers, nomadic groups, disabled, pregnant women etc. in casting their vote”, were some of the arguments cited while rejecting the Bill then.

In 2009, then Congress MP from Delhi J P Agarwal introduced a similar private member’s Bill. In addition to mandating compulsory voting, the Bill put forth that the State ensure a sufficient number of polling booths at convenient places, and make special arrangements for senior citizens, persons with physical disabilities and pregnant women.

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Arguing against it, then the Law Minister in the UPA government, M Veerappa Moily, said “active participation in a democratic set-up must be voluntary and not coerced”, and cautioned against such a move observing that “it was coercive; difficult for the government to implement; and ignorant of causes of non-voting such as illness, preoccupation, and use of force by political parties”.

* Law Commission

In a March 2015 report on electoral reforms, the Law Commission opposed the idea of compulsory voting, saying it was “not practical to implement”. It made a case for how “compulsory voting is not the appropriate means of achieving democratic representativeness”, adding “that the government cannot ‘force-feed’ democracy by compelling people to vote, because doing so violates the cornerstone of democracy and our Constitution, which is freedom and individual choice.”

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It said: “Whereas the right to vote is a statutory right conferred only on the fulfilment of certain criteria, the actual act of voting (‘freedom of voting’) is a manifestation of the freedom of expression.

* The Gujarat model

In 2011, Gujarat passed a Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Act, making it compulsory for voters in the state to vote in elections to local self-government bodies, becoming the first in the country to bring such a legislation. The law had been in the working for five years, with the government of then Chief Minister Narendra Modi drafting it.

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While then Governor Kamla Beniwal refused assent to the Bill, in 2014 – by when the Modi government at the Centre had brought in a new Governor – it was cleared and became the law.

The law contained statutory provisions for both compulsory voting and 50% reservation for women in elections to institutions of local self-government. It had a procedure to identify a “defaulter voter”, with the person to be given a month to give valid and sufficient reasons for not voting, along with supporting documents.

Punishment for the defaulter was to be decided by the government. The state later fixed this at Rs 100.

In August 2015, the Gujarat High Court stayed the implementation of the law.

* Other countries

In his reply in Parliament arguing against the Bill, Baghel said the Philippines, Spain, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, Uruguay, Venezuela, Bulgaria and Chile had all tried to experiment with compulsory voting but “soon realised that it led to some disparities that were damaging”.

In Singapore, voters who skip elections are removed from the voter registry and have to apply again for inclusion, while citing a legitimate excuse. Some critics, however, point out that the system only boosts the largely one-party rule in the country.

In Australia, the system led to concerns about “donkey votes” – wherein citizens ranked parties in the order they appeared, instead of making an informed choice – and made the government opt for random ballots in 1984.

Different political contexts led to the emergence of the system. In Thailand, for example, it was introduced while going through a constitutional overhaul after widespread political instability

However, it did not really have a major impact, with reports noting how corruption and vote-buying persisted and subsequently a military coup also occured in 2006.

According to the Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 27 countries around the globe follow compulsory voting, including Australia. The PEW Research Center writes in a report that in 14 of the 27 countries, sanctions are imposed on those who do not vote, with individuals required to provide “a legitimate explanation”. Sanctions include disenfranchisement or a fine, as per the country.

In Bolivia, public services such as withdrawing funds from a bank can be frozen if an individual does not show voting proof three months after a national election, the PEW report notes. In Peru, defaulters cannot access certain government goods and services, and in Belgium, those who do not vote may find it difficult to get a job in the public sector.

In Argentina, voting is voluntary for those aged 16 to 18. In Brazil, illiterate citizens and those above 70 are exempt from the procedure.

Netherlands, Italy, Fiji, Chile, and Austria have abolished compulsory voting in 1967, 1993, 2014, 2012, 2004, respectively.

The Netherlands abolished the practice on three parameters. One, that voting was a right, which every citizen could choose to exercise. Second, that “sanctions against defaulters were hard to effectively enforce in practice” and third that “tasking parties with the responsibility of attracting voters would ensure that the resultant turn out was a better reflection of voters’ interest”.

In Chile, which earlier had voluntary registration but compulsory voting for those registered, the transition was made to look into declining registration and participation.

Others such as Liechtenstein, Greece and Turkey, among others have compulsory voting laws but these are largely not enforced.

First published on: 07-08-2022 at 10:08:43 am
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