NRI Voting Rights – Measures, Challenges and Way Ahead

Nearly a year after the Bill proposing the extension of proxy voting to NRI voters lapsed with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha, the Election Commission of India (ECI) had proposed the extension of the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS) to the overseas Indian voters on November 2020. Recently, the Election Commission announced that this facility would not be extended to the NRI for the upcoming assembly elections that are to take place in April-June this year. While such a facility is required for enabling expats to exercise their right to vote, the government must tread with caution during the implementation of such an elaborate process.

NRI voting rights

What are the ways through which Indians can vote?

  • There are three ways through which Indian citizens can vote:
  1. In-person voting
  2. Postal ballot
  3. Proxy voting
  • In-person voting involves the electorate being physically present at the polling booth.
  • Postal ballots involve votes being sent via post. This facility is allowed for those who are on election or defence duty within India. Nowadays, one can download blank post ballot sent to them electronically, mark their preference and send back the filled up ballot paper to the election official (ETPBS).
  • Proxy voting allows a registered voter to delegate his voting right to a representative he/she nominates. Only the ‘classified service voter’ serving in the armed forces or paramilitary forces is allowed to get this benefit. This proxy should also be a registered voter of the same constituency.

How do NRIs vote?

  • Only in-person voting is allowed for Non-residential Indians.
  • This is deemed to be restrictive since only a few NRIs are registered as voters.
  • According to the 2015 UN estimation, the Indian diaspora is the largest in the world. The number is estimated to be around 16 million.
  • However, registered NRI voters are just over one lakh.
  • During the 2019 General Elections, around 25,000 NRIs flew to India to vote.

Most probable and repeated topics of upsc prelims

What happened to the proposal to allow proxy voting rights to NRIs?

  • NRIs have long demanded proxy voting rights from the Indian government.
  • This issue first gained limelight when the PIL was filed in the Supreme Court in 2014.
  • In response to the SC direction, the Election Commission had set up the Committee for Exploring Feasibility of Alternative Options for Voting Overseas Electors.
  • After examining the existing global voting practices for expats, four were shortlisted – voting in embassies, online voting, postal/e-postal ballot and proxy voting.
  • The Committee ruled out the first two possibilities – voting in embassies and online voting – because of logistical and technical constraints.
  • It supported the other two – postal ballots and proxy voting.
  • The proxy voting mechanism for NRIs received considerable support from the government since it was free from logistical problems like time consumption, seeking host countries’ permission etc.
  • The Union Cabinet passed the proposal on proxy voting right for NRIs in 2017.
  • The Bill to amend the Representation of the People Act, 1950 was then introduced in the Parliament.
  • This failed to pass in the Indian Parliament due to objections from politicians doubting the authenticity of proxy votes.
  • The issues with proxy voting are:
  1. There is no mechanism to guarantee that the proxy voter will actually vote as per the NRI electorate’s wishes
  2. It goes against the secrecy of the vote

What is an Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System?

  • Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS) is the one-way electronic transmission of the Postal ballots.
  • It was developed by the Election Commission of India in collaboration with the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC).
  • It has two layers of security.
  • The secrecy of the vote is maintained through the use of OTP and PIN.
  • Duplication is not possible in this system because of the unique QR code.
  • Under this mechanism, the postal ballot is dispatched electronically and returned via ordinary mail to the returning officer.
  • Only service voters are eligible for this system. These include:
  1. Armed Forces personnel
  2. Paramilitary force personnel
  3. Government employees on diplomatic missions outside India
  • This system is also extended to the wife of the service voter who normally resides with him.
  • ETPBS has nearly halved the time in sending and receiving postal ballots from far-off areas.

What is the ECI’s proposal to extend ETPBS to NRIs?

  • In November last year, the Election Commission proposed extending the ETPBS to the overseas voters since it is technically and administratively ready to extend this service.
  • This proposal came in response to demands from NRI voters, who find in-person voting to be a costly affair.
  • Apart from facing monetary constraints, these voters are also facing difficulties due to specific compulsions of employment, education and other engagements.
  • This issue is compounded by the pandemic-related protocols put in place by foreign countries.
  • This proposal is in line with Section 62 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which envisages the right to vote for every citizen registered in the electoral roll.
  • For this proposal to be implemented, the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 must be amended to extend ETPBS for overseas electors. This does not require the Parliament’s approval.
  • These rules were earlier amended in 2016 for providing ETPBS facility to service voters.
  • If the rules are amended, the interested NRIs will have to inform the returning officer at least five days after the notification of the election.
  • After receiving this information, the returning officer will dispatch the ballot paper electronically.
  • The NRI voters will then cast their preferred votes on the ballot printouts and return them with the attested declaration by an officer appointed by the diplomatic or consular representative of India.

Will this proposal be implemented during the upcoming elections?

  • Postal ballot facility for NRIs will not be provided during the upcoming assembly elections in Assam, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Kerala and West Bengal, which are to take place in April-June 2021.
  • This is because the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 is yet to be amended to extend the ETPBS facility to overseas voters.

How do other countries accommodate expatriate voters?

  • Many foreign countries allow their expatriates to vote, though the eligibility criteria differ from one country to another.
  • For instance, a British citizen residing in a foreign country can register as an overseas voter for up to 15 years after leaving the UK as long as he/she retains British or Irish citizenship and is a registered voter during the last 15 years.
  • Those who were minors at the time of leaving the UK are also eligible to vote as long as their parent/guardian was registered to vote in the UK.
  • The country provides in-person, postal ballot and proxy voting facilities for its expats.
  • The American expatriates are provided voting rights irrespective of the time of their residence abroad.
  • An overseas American voter can exercise absentee voting by submitting a complete Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) to their local election officials.
  • After the registration, the voter will receive the ballot paper via email, fax or internet download, depending on the state they are eligible to vote in.
  • The ballot paper, on which the vote is cast, will have to be returned the same way before a designated deadline.

What can be the way forward?

  • While enabling NRIs to exercise their franchise is a step in the right direction, the government should address the following challenges:
  1. India’s diplomatic missions currently do not have the logistical wherewithal to handle attestation for a large number of NRI voters.
  2. Permission of the host country is required for organising elections for expats. This is especially difficult in non-democratic countries.
  • The Election Commission must also first test the new reforms in smaller and more democratic foreign countries before expanding the same to more challenging territories.
  • There currently lacks country-wise data of registered NRI voters. This issue needs to be addressed by the election watchdog so as to enable effective logistical planning and operations.
  • Extension of ETPBS facility must also include migrant workers, PwDs and senior citizens.

Conclusion:

The extension of e-postal ballots will enable the democratic participation of Indian expats. However, the facility must be provided with consideration to logistical challenges. If successful, this privilege must be extended to vulnerable communities within Indian borders who are failing to exert their democratic rights due to various constraints.

Practice question for mains:

Critically examine the government’s efforts to include Non-Residential Indians in the electoral process. What are the challenges faced during this process? (250 words)

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