7 May 2008

Concept of negative voting

The general elections are almost round the corner, and this is the apt time to discuss the topic of negative voting. Negative voting is an option of exercising one’s franchise to none of the contesting candidate. This exercising of negative voting, could be construed as an expression of discontent with the candidates or as against the political parties at large.

The need for such a provision could be argued based on the socio-political ground that people are discontented with the performance of the political parties and the leaders, and hence negative voting as a tool of expressing this dissent. Many recent elections have seen drastic fall in the polling ratio, which is being attributed to the loss of faith in the political parties. Lot of people has just stopped exercising their right to vote. When less than 50% of the voters select a government, what legitimacy of ‘people’s will’ does that win carry? Will negative voting help as an alternative to this problem, is the moot question? As such what does negative voting help? It helps to bring those who do not want to select any of the candidates to the electoral booths, and express their dissent. But even then, above mentioned condition of a candidate getting elected by very low margin of votes, as compared to the total number of votes being polled may continue, but the polling percentage has high chances of going up and thus could reflect the actual will of people. Though this would actually reflect good governance, this in no way is going to invalidate candidature of any of the contestants, but just that this helps to bring out the best of democracy. It is at last the choice of the people, and to prove the fallacy of depicting common man as a fool, who has no other option other than choosing between two people on the basis of who is less bad than the other.

Now, the legality of this issue, as the position stands now is that a voter has the option to 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 (this is in the case of Electronic Voting Machines). In the case of conventional ballot paper and ballot boxes, which was in use before, a voter could drop the ballot paper without marking his vote against any of the candidate. This is as per the Rule 49-O of the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, which reads a follows:

49-O. Elector deciding not to vote.-If an elector, after his electoral roll number has been duly entered in the register of voters in Form-17A 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 thumb impression of the elector shall be obtained against such remark.

But this throws up the issue of compromising with the secrecy. Secret ballot is one of the characteristic of a democratic poll. Here the polling officials and the polling agents in the polling station have the knowledge of the choice of the voter.

So for an effective negative voting, it is important that it should have secrecy. Election Commission of India (ECI), in its electoral reforms, has recommended as follows:

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 proviso 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).

There is a petition filed by the PUCL in 2005 ,before the Supreme Court seeking a right for the voter to cast a negative vote through the method recommended by ECI. But even though the petition is admitted, I presume the final decision is yet to come, as I cannot locate the judgment or any news item related to it in the preliminary search. As a sign of matured democracy, it is high time that such significant improvements in the electoral regime are incorporated.

Further reading: Electoral reforms proposed by Election Commission of India