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Electoral reforms: How secret is your ballot?

In a couple of months, the great Indian Election Bazaar is about to open its dukaan again. Methinks it is time then, ladies and gentlemen, to raise the pitch on a connected issue.

Last week, I touched upon the fact that much of the rot in the Indian Polity is on account of deeply flawed, contradictory, inconsistent and unstable electoral systems and processes.

Recommendations by various people and institutions to eradicate these flaws have been, more or less, treated like toilet paper by the elected representatives who make and amend laws. The last 37 years, to my knowledge, have witnessed at least 11 profoundly meaningful – and roundly ignored - reports on the burning issue of Electoral Reforms. The same were listed out in last week’s blog post.

I will attempt to highlight a few of the glaring anomalies in a follow-up 3-part series; this being the first.

Let us start with the low-hanging fruit, in a manner of speaking – the vote.

Can voters who choose not to vote avoid being targetted? Reuters

What if one decides to cast a blank vote? God knows, in almost half the constituencies, no less than double of half the voters – and I use such exaggeration purely to drive home the underlying point - wish they could reject all candidates. Unfortunately, any such attempt is laced with danger; unlike a regular vote, a blank vote is not “secret”, and hence anyone who casts a blank vote is in “danger of being victimized by some candidates or political parties”.

As I stated last week, it is the INTENT [the word being used in context to Aristotle’s 4 causes] of these elected ones that is beginning to bother me now. After all, they can be quite efficient and quick to respond to most stuff – perceived slander being a case in point – but when it comes to meaningful stuff on almost any other front, they drag their feet for 10, 20, 40 years.

Deliberately so, I am now inclined to believe.

Yet, they take offence when some over-zealous young cartoonist depicts their workplace as a toilet! A bit rich, for them to take umbrage to what the mirror shows….

Back to the ludicrous gaps in the system on the issue of blank votes.

This glaring anomaly was first pointed out way back in 2001, and I quote from a July 2004 report  [Titled Proposed Electoral Reforms] submitted by the then CEC TS Krishna Murthy to the Prime-Minister - yes the very same Teflon-coated PM who, as some exceptionally marginalized segments of the populace say, is NOT a tragic, under-achieving poodle:

The Commission has received proposals from a very large number of individuals and organizations that there should be a provision enabling a voter to reject all the candidates in the constituency if he does not find them suitable. In the voting using the conventional ballot paper and ballot boxes, an elector can drop the ballot paper without marking his vote against any of the candidates, if he chooses so. However, in the voting using the Electronic Voting Machines, such a facility is not available to the voter. Although, Rule 49 O of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 provides that an elector may refuse to vote after he has been identified and necessary entries made in the Register of Electors and the marked copy of the electoral roll, the secrecy of voting is not protected here in as much as the polling officials and the polling agents in the polling station get to know about the decision of such a voter.

The Commission recommends that the law should be amended to specifically provide for negative / neutral voting. For this purpose, Rules 22 and 49B of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 may be suitably amended adding a provision that in the ballot paper and the particulars on the ballot unit, in the column relating to names of candidates, after the entry relating to the last candidate, there shall be a column None of the above, to enable a voter to reject all the candidates, if he chooses so. Such a proposal was earlier made by the Commission in 2001 (vide letter dated 10.12.2001).”

Can someone please explain to us, as to why the State has been dragging its feet over something as simple as providing a NOTA option on the EVM?

Rhetorical question that. Here is what is happening, ladies and gentlemen….

A typical election sees about 60% voting, with the winner garnering 30-35% of the votes cast. Yes, there could be readings which lie outside this band, but to look at the entire equation in its full un-glory, we will have to resort to averages; which is what I have done above.

What these figures and the concomitant back-of-the-envelope calculations tell me is that the winning candidate wins on account of a minority vote – with approximately 80% of the voters voting AGAINST him/her. Were the NOTA option be made available, it is possible that the number of blanks will exceed the number of votes cast endorsing the so-called winning candidate.

And this truth can tumble out of the closet, giving some grief to the political class, were the NOTA option be added on the EVMs.

This would then necessarily bring the entire debate on the “[50% + 1]” logic back into the limelight, would it not? Which, in turn, would compel political parties to field worthy candidates, rather than just winnable candidates who are backed by muscle power and money?

Is the State brazenly violating the basic principles of a representative democracy here? If one were to question the Parliament on this, I suspect they will make some mumbling noises, merely saying something horrendously unconvincing, as if apropos of nothing….

Make no mistake; the inconsistencies do not end here.

Take the issue of Totalizers, for instance……

4.15: Totalizer for counting of votes (Item 6.15 in the Background Paper) pertains to the suggestion by the Election Commission for amending the Conduct of Elections Rules to provide for the use of totalizer for counting of votes cast at more than one polling station where EVMs are used, to prevent the trend of voting in individual polling station areas from being divulged, so that candidates and political parties cannot harass or victimize voters because of their getting less votes in a specific polling station”

[ADR/NEW Recommendations for Electoral Reforms, submitted to Ministry Of Law And Justice & the Election Commission Of India, April 2011]

Final Word:

Any discussion on the issue of blank votes would be incomplete without mentioning  the “cruelly ironic” work of fiction about “the imposture of the times we live in” by the Nobel Prize winning author, Jose Saramago. I was fortunate enough to be guided in that direction, a couple of months ago, by a commenter on Firstpost who has the wicked sense of humor to use the screen-name “Sendero Luminoso”. So thank you, Sendero Luminoso. For a brief summary of Saramago’s novel “Seeing”, write in to me at [shining.path.notperu@gmail.com] and I will be happy to share some of the most devastatingly eye-opening passages with those of you who may be inclined to know more about it.

And no, no political party is paying me to review that book – I prefer bottles of liquor, a TV set, some cash, few bags of rice and a laptop to be enticed to vote for A or B! Kidding.

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