In a country as geographically large and diverse as India, where candidates contesting the general elections can often run into the thousands, it is possible that the electorate is not happy or satisfied with any of the candidates. In such a scenario, as part of the world’s largest democracy, it is the voter’s right to be able to reject all candidates and to do so while maintaining the secrecy of the ballot.
Keeping this in mind, the Supreme Court of India directed the Election Commission of India (EC) to make a provision for none of the above button or NOTA in electronic voting machines (EVMs)/ ballot papers. The judgment stated that not allowing a person to cast a vote negatively “defeats the very freedom of expression and the right ensured in Article 21 i.e., the right to liberty.” The court also held the view that introducing the NOTA option would encourage larger voter participation and compel political parties to nominate a sound candidate, while protecting the voter’s right to secrecy while casting his/her ballot.
The SC bench under former chief justice P Sathasivam said, "Negative voting will lead to a systemic change in polls and political parties will be forced to project clean candidates. If the right to vote is a statutory right, then the right to reject a candidate is a fundamental right of speech and expression under the Constitution."
The EC introduced the NOTA option for the first time in the 2013 Assembly elections of Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh. In 2014, the EC introduced the option in the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha elections. The NOTA symbol is placed at the end of the list of all candidates on the EVM. It is not a negative vote, but a neutral one that records a voter’s rejection of candidates. It does not hold any value in the final tally.
According to an analysis of NOTA votes in elections between 2013 and 2017 by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), NOTA secured 1,33,09,577 (1.33 crore) votes in the state Assembly and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Even if NOTA secures the most number of votes, the candidate with the most votes is declared the winner.
Other countries where voters are allowed to cast NOTA ballots are Columbia, Ukraine, Brazil, Bangladesh, Finland, Chile, Belgium, Spain, and Sweden. A few states in America also allow NOTA votes.
The ‘right to reject’ before NOTA
Prior to the introduction of the NOTA option, rule 49-O under the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, allowed voters to register a vote of disapproval or rejection if they felt none of the candidates were worth voting for. According to Rule 49-O, “If an elector, after his electoral number has been duly entered in the register of voters in Form17A and has put his signature or thumb impression thereon as required under sub-rule (1) of rule 49L, decided not to record his vote, a remark to this effect shall be made against the said entry in Form 17A by the presiding officer and the signature or the thumb impression of the elector shall be obtained against such remark.” The officer would make a “Refused to Vote” remark against the voter’s name.
While Rule 49-O helped keep a check on bogus voting, the secrecy of the ballot was violated as the voter had to inform the presiding officer of his/her decision to not vote and an entry was made in the register against his/her name. This also put voters in the danger of being targetted or harassed by political parties and candidates.
Even before EVMs were introduced and voting was done through ballot papers, voters could put in the ballot paper without marking against any of the candidates, thus rejecting all candidates. This was counted as rejection, but it was not available to voters on EVMs. The issue of Rule 49-O was taken up by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) which filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court to make the NOTA option available on EVMs.
Impact of NOTA
According to the ADR report, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, NOTA secured 1.08 percent (60,02,942) votes. The highest number of NOTA votes was registered in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris parliamentary constituency (46,559 votes) while the lowest was record in Lakshadweep (123 votes). In Vadodara Lok Sabha constituency, from where Narendra Modi won the 2014 polls, NOTA secured 1,803 votes, third after runner-up Madhusudhan Mistry of the Congress.
Between 2013 and 2017, on average, NOTA secured 2.70 lakh votes in the state Assembly elections. There have also been instances, such as in bypolls in Goa, NCT of Delhi and Andhra Pradesh, where a large number of voters chose NOTA, making its vote share the third or fourth highest in the respective constituency. However among all state Assembly elections, NOTA registered the highest percentage of votes in 2015 (2.08 percent, 9,83,176 votes) in the Assembly elections of Bihar and NCT of Delhi.
The report also mentioned that constituency-wise, Gadchiroli in Maharashtra received 17,510 votes in the Assembly election and just seven votes in Arunachal Pradesh’s Mariyang Geku constituency. While NOTA has not secured a majority in any of the elections, there have been instances when the number of NOTA votes polled have been higher than the victory margin. In the 2018 Madhya Pradesh Assembly polls, sitting Gwalior South MP Narayan Singh Kushwaha lost the seat by 121 votes and NOTA registered 1,550 votes. If all the NOTA voters had, hypothetically, voted for Kushwaha, he would have won by a large margin.
Debates around NOTA
When NOTA was introduced, BJP leaders Narendra Modi and LK Advani welcomed the move, but said voting should be made mandatory to enhance the effect of the NOTA option. In a blog, Advani wrote, "Voters, who without any legitimate justification, have not been exercising the valuable right of franchise the Indian Constitution has conferred on them have, unwittingly thus, been casting a negative vote against all the contesting candidates without intending to do so.”
This Live Law piece written by an RTI activist opined that voting is a person’s right, “not his duty” and as such “forcing to vote could create fear-fever amongst many, and thus also violate their normal human rights”. However, there are some of the opinion that NOTA is a waste of votes since it does not hold any electoral value.
There have also been instances where groups canvassed for NOTA as a mark of protest against social injustice and corruption. In Kerala, in 2016, a group of women activists urged people to not elect any candidate if no woman candidate was in the fray. It has also been observed that reserved and Red Alert constituencies — where three or more candidates have criminal records — polled more NOTA votes, which points to how the electorate felt about injustice against SCs/STs and the State.
However, not many Indians see NOTA as an instrument of protest. In 2016, a PIL was filed in the Madras High Court seeking the full ‘right to reject’ instead of NOTA. According to the Sunday Guardian, NOTA would be a mere decoration of the EVM if no mandatory reelection was held in cases where NOTA polled the majority of votes. There have also been suggestions that candidates rejected should not be allowed to contest for a fixed period of time. Another suggestion is that political parties whose candidates lose to NOTA should bear the cost of reelection.
Updated Date: Apr 06, 2019 19:20:45 IST