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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 14, Dated Apr 11, 2009

Clean, Honest Polls Please

A negative vote ensures no one misuses your democratic right


Cover Story

Illustration: ANAND NAOREM

THE SINGLE most common suggestion from voters and civil society around our country is for an option to choose ‘None of the above’, allowing a citizen not to vote for any of the candidates. Sometimes this is also called “reject all candidates”. The Election Commission has also endorsed this option and has written formally to the government to incorporate it in the electronic voting machines (EVMs). Some background on this is helpful.

Before we moved to the EVM system, we had ballot papers. A voter could go into the booth in secrecy and put a cross against all candidates, or in other ways invalidate her vote. With the coming of the EVMs, this option is no longer available since no button says ‘None of the above’. Rule 49(O) of the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, can be invoked to overcome this. A voter can go to a polling booth and tell the officer that she does not want to vote. The officer then looks up her name on the voter rolls, puts a line through it, and asks the voter to sign against her name. This allows a voter to formally register the fact that she has not voted. However, there is no secrecy since she has to publicly tell the officer that she does not want to vote. Since many officers are not aware of this provision, there is a lot of resistance even if a voter wants to exercise this right. In fact, many voters are also not aware of this provision.

There are some 49(O) rumours: if the maximum votes are for ‘None of the above’, then either there will be a re-poll or all candidates will be disqualified. This is incorrect.

There will be pressure to change the electoral system once the ‘None of the above’ tallies become public

There is an advantage in exercising your right under 49(O) — it ensures that no one else casts your vote. But under the current system, no statistics are available on how many people have used 49(O). The EC’s suggestion to have a button option on the EVM will allow the number of votes cast under ‘None of the above’ to be recorded. Once these statistics start becoming public, there will be a lot more pressure for far-reaching changes in the electoral system. A public interest litigation (PIL) asking for ‘None of the above’ has been admitted in the Supreme Court. It remains to be seen what the final judgment will be.

The long-term goal is clean elections that elect honest and capable MPs and MLAs committed to public service and to better democracy, finally delivering good governance. The option of ‘None of the above’ is only one small step in that direction. We need more structural changes: democratic candidate selections instead of party bosses choosing in secret; political parties being more transparent about funding sources and democratic in internal functioning; and a public debate on the quality of representation. The first-past-the-post system often leads to situations where the winner has about 20 percent of the registered votes. The ruling party usually has at the most 35 percent of the votes. This is followed by horse-trading and coalitions of convenience. A party with 35 percent votes can go largely unrepresented, as happened in Karnataka where the Congress actually got more votes than the BJP but far fewer seats. These anomalies need to be removed, and there are several alternate ways of arriving at better representation.

But all these changes need new legislation and Constitutional amendments. Meanwhile, we face a major General Election in the midst of various national crises, ranging from terrorism, extremism, economic slowdown, poverty to agricultural distress. In the next few days, the most practical thing voters can do is to exercise their vote, know their candidate’s background before voting, refuse to sell their votes for money — and yes, use 49(O) if they want to express their dissatisfaction with the quality of candidates in their constituency.

Sastry is a voters rights activist based in Bengaluru

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 14, Dated Apr 11, 2009

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