General Studies Paper 2
WHY IN NEWS:
- In the last week of December 2022, the Election Commission of India (ECI) wrote to the major political parties. Through the letter, the Commission invited the parties to attend to attend a demonstration of the prototype Remote Voting Machine (RVM) on January 16, 2023. The Commission has also asked them to send in their comments by January 31, 2023. It is expected that the remote voting facility will improve electoral turn-outs by enabling migrants in different parts of India to vote, without having to physically visit the voting booths in their home constituencies. At the same time there are concerns related to the integrity of the process, which is absolutely essential to ensure free and fair elections. Hence, it important to take a cautious approach, consult all stakeholders and take them on-board before the launch of the remote voting facility.
What is Remote Voting ?
- Remote Voting refers to all means which allow electors to vote from locations other than the polling station assigned to the location where they are registered to vote. The remote voting location can be either abroad or from within the country. It comprises both electronic voting and non-electronic voting mechanisms.
- There have been demands from various political parties that the ECI should ensure that migrant workers and NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) who miss out on voting should be allowed to vote for their constituency from the city they are working in. Many such voters aren’t able to visit their home constituency to vote because of multitude of reasons including professional commitments, cost of travelling etc.
How is the Remote Voting proposed to be implemented in India?
- The ECI has come up with a prototype Remote Voting Machine (RVM). It is a modified version of the existing Electronic Voting Machine (EVM). The RVM has been developed with the assistance of Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and the Electronics Corporation of India Limited (ECIL).
Hardware and Voting Process
- The RVMs are ‘stand alone, non-networked systems‘, effectively providing the voter the same experience as currently used EVMs. They will be set up in remote locations outside the State under similar conditions as current polling booths.
- The unique feature of RVMs is that a single Remote Ballot Unit (RBU) can cater to multiple constituencies(up to 72) by using a ‘dynamic ballot display board’ instead of the usual printed paper ballot sheet on the EVMs.
- Based on the constituency number read from the voter’s Constituency card, the Ballot Unit Overlay Display(BUOD) will display the required candidates. These cards will be read using a barcode scanning system.
- After verifying a voter’s identity, their constituency card will be read with a public display showing the constituency details and candidates. This will also be displayed privately, on the BUOD in the RVM’s RBU. The voter will then vote and each vote will be stored constituency-wisein the control unit of the voting machine.
Process of Registration
- The remote voter will have to pre-registerfor the remote voting facility by applying online or offline with the Returning Officer of the home constituency. The special polling stations would then be set up in the places of current residence of the remote voters.
- According to the ECI, the RVM, like the EVM, would not be connected to the internet. The Returning Officer (RO) in the remote location will load the symbols of candidates into the unit using a laptop. These laptops would not be connected to the internet. Representatives of political parties and candidates would be invited to be present when the symbols are loaded onto the unit. The symbols would be visible on a display unit for all to see. This will ensure that the process is transparent and is not susceptible to manipulation.
Benefits of Remote Voting:
- Disenfranchisement of Voters: There are an estimated 600 million internal migrants as of 2020(450 million according to Census 2011). Approximately 85% of migration is within the States.
- Voting Turnout: The electoral turn-out has improved since the time of the first General Elections. The First General Elections (1951-52) witnessed turn-out of 45.7%. In 1960s-70s, the turn-out used to be between 50-60% (61.3% in 1967). In 2014 and 2019 General Elections, the turn-out touched 66.44% and 67.40% respectively. Yet, almost 33% voters failed to cast their vote. In 2019, this translated to almost 300 million (30 crore) registered voters failing to exercise their democratic right.
- Promote Inclusion: Remote voting solutions can help facilitate voting for voters who are unable to travel far because of factors like old age or disability.
Challenges associated with Remote Voting:
- Legal: (a)Amendments will be needed in Representation of the People Act, 1950 and 1951; Conduct of Election Rules, 1961; and The Registration of Electors Rules, 1960; (b) The ‘Migrant voter’ will need to be defined in terms of period and purpose of absence; (c) The process of Remote voting itself will need to be defined as whether ‘remoteness’ means outside the Constituency, District or State.
- Administrative: There are several challenges like: (a)Requirement of comprehensive migrant database and enumerating remote voters; (b) Ensuring secrecy of voting at remote locations; (c) Preventing impersonation; (d) Deciding number and location of remote polling booths; (e) Appointing polling personnel for remote polling stations; (f) Implementing model code in locations outside the poll-bound State; (g) Creating awareness about the remote voting facility among poor and illiterate migrant voters; (h) Placing remote voting in the electoral concept of territorial constituencies or demarcated areas in States for equal representation of votes.
- Technological: (a)Familiarising voters with multi-constituency RVM; (b) Counting votes cast at remote booths and transmitting results to returning officers in poll-bound State.
What are the major concerns related with Remote Voting in India?
- Might favour Big National Parties: Smaller regional parties may lack enough cadre strength to deploy at remote voting locations, for political canvassing as well as monitoring the remote voting process. National Parties are better placed in this regard having nation-wide cadre of political workers. Allowing Remote Voting across the country for State Assembly elections will deny opportunity to regional parties to send in their nominees to booths.
- Urban Apathy: Experts attribute low turn-out typically to ‘urban apathy’, ‘youth apathy’ and ‘migration-based disenfranchisement’. Voting turn-out has been low in urban/metropolitan areas despite low out-migration from these regions. Remote voting will be able to address only the 3rd reason of the above.
- Union-State Rights: The ECI plans to bring in a common electoral roll that can be used for elections to the Lok Sabha, State Assemblies, and Local Bodies. Opposition Parties contend that this would impinge on the federal rights of the States since the preparation of electoral rolls come under the exclusive domain of the State Election Commissions.
- Concern raised by ECI: ECI has also expressed concern that several things have to be defined like ‘migrant voter’, ‘ordinary residence’, ‘temporary absence’ etc. Procedural issues like Implementation of MCC in remote States need to be sorted.
What should be the approach going ahead?
- First, It is critical that any system of remote voting take into account the trust and acceptability of all stakeholders in the electoral system including voters and political parties. Political consensus is a must before the introduction of Remote Voting.
- Second, The issue should be properly debated in the Parliament and the relevant laws should be amended.
- Third, The ECI has to build confidence among the voters and political parties about the transparency and the integrity of the Remote Voting process.
- The ECI is renowned world over for its impeccable record in conducting free and fair elections, at such a grand scale. The ECI has driven unique innovations in electoral processes in India like the EVMs, voting IDs etc. Remote Voting Machines (RVMs) can be a revolutionary development in facilitating enfranchisement of migrant voters. However, the process has to be fool-proof and error free. All political parties should be on-board and be convinced about the transparency and integrity of the process. It should be introduced only after thorough deliberations and political consensus.