Election Commission proposes extending postal ballot facility for NRIs, asks Centre to amend law at earliest

'The Commission is technically and administratively ready to extend this facility in general elections to legislative assemblies of Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry,' the poll panel said

Press Trust of India December 01, 2020 18:07:50 IST
Election Commission proposes extending postal ballot facility for NRIs, asks Centre to amend law at earliest

An Indian election commission officer opens a postal ballot box at a counting centre in New Delhi. AFP

New Delhi: The Election Commission has proposed to the government to extend the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS) facility, so far available to service voters, to eligible overseas Indian voters.

In a letter to the legislative secretary in the law ministry on 27 November, the Commission said with the successful execution of ETPBS in case of service voters, it is now "confident" that the facility can also be extended to the overseas electors.

"The Commission is technically and administratively ready to extend this facility in general elections to legislative assemblies of Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry," the poll panel said.

Elections in these states are due sometime in April-June next year.

It said the poll panel has been receiving several representations from Indian diaspora residing abroad to facilitate voting through postal ballots since such overseas electors are not in a position to be present in their polling area as travelling to India for this purpose is a costly affair and otherwise, also, they cannot leave the country of their residence owing to specific compulsions of employment, education or other engagements.

"Due to protocols associated with COVID-19 , the problem further gets compounded," the letter to the law ministry said.

The Commission observed that Section 62 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 envisages the right to vote for every citizen registered in the electoral roll who is not subject to disqualification for voting.

"Therefore, it is necessary to explore all avenues to enable exercise of a franchise by all eligible electors," it said.

As of now, overseas Indians are free to cast their votes in constituencies they are registered.

Unofficial data with the EC shows that only 10,000 to 12,000 overseas voters have exercised their franchise because they do not want to spend foreign currency to come to India and vote.

Under ETPBS, a postal ballot is sent electronically to a service voter. The service voter downloads it and uses a specific envelope to return it to the returning officer of his constituency.

The postal ballot should reach the returning officer by 8.00 am on the day of the counting. Counting of votes begins with the counting of postal ballots at 8 am.

Personnel of armed forces posted outside their constituencies in forward areas, personnel of central armed police forces posted outside their constituencies state police personnel posted on poll duty, embassy staff are considered as service voters.

The EC has suggested amending the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 to extend ETPBS for overseas electors. The rules were amended in October, 2016 to allow service voters to use ETPBS.

ETPBS has nearly halved the time in sending and receiving postal ballots from far-flung areas.

The Conduct of Election Rules were also changed to allow those who are 80 years of age or above and those with disabilities to use the postal ballot to cast vote. The same facility was extended for COVID-19 patients. But this postal ballot facility is different from ETPBS.

For overseas electors, EC has said the voter will have to intimate the returning officer that she wants to use the postal ballot. The returning officer will then electronically transmit the ballot paper to the voter by means specified by the EC.

The Commission requested the government to make necessary amendments at the earliest "which will go a long way in not only facilitating the exercise of the right of overseas electors but also further boosting the image of the country internationally."

A bill to extend the facility of proxy voting to overseas Indians had lapsed following the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha in 2019.

The bill had proposed that overseas Indians, who are entitled to vote in India, can appoint a proxy voter to cast the ballot on their behalf.

An expert committee of the Election Commission, working on the issue, had in 2015 forwarded the legal framework to the Law Ministry to amend the electoral laws to allow the overseas Indians to use proxy voting.

The bill said the necessary provision of coming to India to cast a ballot caused hardship for overseas electors.

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