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Monday, December 2, 2013

“None of the above” option for voters is a significant electoral reform

“None of the above” option for voters is a significant electoral reform
The decision by the Supreme Court to allow voters the option to indicate a preference for none of the candidates featuring on a ballot paper by clicking on a “none of the above” (NOTA) button can be seen as a step forward towards an ever more legitimate and accountable electoral system.
In a vibrant democracy, the voter must be given an opportunity to choose ‘none of the above’ (NOTA) button, which will indeed compel the political parties to nominate a sound candidate. According to the Supreme Court “Such an option gives the voter the right to express his disapproval with the kind of candidates that are being put up by the political parties. When political parties will realise that a large number of people are expressing their disapproval with the candidates being put up by them, gradually there will be a systemic change and the political parties will be forced to accept the will of the people and field candidates who are known for their integrity.”
No candidate should be declared elected if ‘NOTA’ gets most votes and a fresh election should be organised.
The “right to reject” political candidates has long been a desired objective of elements in civil society, and was a major secondary ambition of the anti-corruption agitation led by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal.
The ‘NOTA’ verdict also addresses an inconsistency in the previous set-up. For a voter, the secrecy of her action is guaranteed by the Constitution. Currently, if a voter wishes to reject all the candidates, then she is required to ask for a form and fill it up. This is not only cumbersome but also constrains the right to a secret ballot. In urban areas, secrecy doesn’t matter but in rural areas it does.
NOTA is surely a better option than the more stringent ‘right to recall’ practiced in a few small countries such as Switzerland where citizens can force a parliamentarian to face recall vote if a minimum percentage of voters’ support is obtained in a signature campaign. In India, the right to recall could prove even more counter-productive. Mustering the minimum support in a signature campaign to trigger the referendum would not be difficult. But then, the election calendar which is already fairly packed would become a day-to-day event: A signature campaign in some constituency or the other, on top of by-elections on the death or resignation of candidates, would always be going on, keeping the Election Commission more than busy.
The The ‘NOTA’ judgment is not going to result in any substantial electoral reform. Also, it will not affect the selection of candidates by political parties. It is nothing more than a fashionable suggestion emanating from armchair intellectuals.
Elections are held to elect the representatives of the people. The process of NOTA goes contrary to the electoral process of the country. In the current climate, where people say all the candidates are tainted, if the suggestion of NOTA is accepted by all the voters all over the country, then the result will be that no one will get elected. It defeats the purpose of holding elections. It may make democracy impossible to function and we may face a situation of anarchy.
‘NOTA’ does not serve any purpose but needlessly complicates the task of Election Commission. Those not wanting to vote for any candidate are unlikely to visiting a polling booth, stand in a queue and then vote NOTA. They would rather stay at home. Also, even in the current system, a form can be filled with the returning officer if a voter wants to put on record that he wishes to vote for no one. Why then ‘NOTA’?
The Court believes that the right to vote is meaningless unless voters are allowed to say they aren’t enamoured of any of the candidates in the fray. As a result, their selection of candidates will reflect more seriousness. This is because voters who do not bestir themselves to vote would now exercise their franchise, albeit negative. Impressive though this logic may be, it is not as if we are going to see a sudden surge of voters coming out in droves and thronging the voting booths, enamoured by the new power in their hands. The current voter apathy is not necessarily out of disillusionment with candidates; it is also born of laziness. Compulsory voting could be a better way of improving voter participation in the polling process.
At present, under the Representation of the People Act, the returning officer is duty-bound to declare the candidate who secures the maximum number of votes as the winner. ‘NOTA’ is not a candidate. Under the present law there can be no re-poll. This issue would have to go back to Parliament.
There are other difficulties that might also arise. For instance, in Naxalite-dominated areas people could be forced to exercise the NOTA option. They could be coerced into pressing the NOTA button by those who are ideologically opposed to democracy. This is an issue that needs to be carefully debated and discussed.
There are other complex issues generated by ‘NOTA’. How many times will elections be held if NOTA is always more than the dominant candidate? How long will the Election Commission keep the model code of conduct (MCC) in operation? If a candidate is defeated by NOTA, can he or she contest again?
Studies have shown that voters are paid money before the election, the sale of liquor increases, etc. Then, in spite of the election laws, voters are ferried to the polling booth by political parties. Most often, voters end up voting for caste or community vote banks. Under such circumstances, it is naive to believe that voting is based on ideology, principles or merit of the candidate. ‘NOTA’ is unlikely to make any difference to the current state of elections in this country.
A recent study of poll results of Parliament and state Assemblies found that on an average, 70 per cent of all those elected had more votes cast against them, than for them. NOTA will further worsen voter cynicism about elections.
‘NOTA’ is another instance of the judiciary trespassing into the domain of the executive. Parliament makes laws and courts to examine them for their constitutional validity. Both have to remain within their jurisdictional limit, otherwise, a conflict arises. If the court starts taking over legislative work then, it is overreaching its powers.


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