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Voting Rights for NRIs

The eligibility criteria for having your name included in the electoral rolls includes, as on date, having “ordinary resident” status in your constituency. Quite naturally, this disqualifies NRIs from voting. The only exceptions provided are for members of the armed/paramilitary forces and civil servants who are posted abroad [Source: The Hindu]. The exceptions are provided, I think, because these people leave their constituencies on explicit Government orders. Without this exception, it would amount to the Government having forcibly taken away their voting rights. Civil servants serving within India, but not in their home constituency, are expected to register themselves in their new constituencies – just like any other citizen who migrates within the country.

The first reform that needs to be implemented is, therefore, to change the definition of “ordinary resident” to include the NRIs.

So much for eligibility criteria. Then comes implementation. The exceptional cases noted above can vote by postal ballots or by proxy (not available to civil servants posted abroad). The same facility can, in theory, be made available to NRIs after modifying the eligibility criteria suitably.

Consider the postal ballots first. They are rather ineffective owing to the delays in receiving them on time. Even when posted from within India, not many of them end up being counted. There are only a few weeks available, from the time candidates are finalized for a constituency to the time when votes are cast, to carry out the entire process of postal ballots. Imagine the delays when the ballots are posted from abroad. If the Indian Embassies were to collect such ballots and send them to India with a special flight, they would still have to be distributed around the country – and that’s going to face the same roadblocks that postal ballots posted from within India face right now. Logistically, the idea is a non-starter. In fact, it should perhaps be done away with even for the existing cases.

Postal ballots can be made more feasible if more time is available between finalising the candidates and the polling. However, that leads to other problems like overly long campaigning season and consequent increase in expenditure incurred by all parties concerned (political parties as well as the electoral machinery).

Voting by proxy sounds like a good idea. People can nominate a family member or a trusted friend to vote on their behalf. While the legal tangles for doing this in the case of members of armed forces and paramilitary forces (who have this facility available to them right now) are also non-trivial, the process can be simplified. Ideally, it shouldn’t be more challenging than granting a power of attorney.

The easily-noticed downside that I see to proxy voting is that if it is opened to NRIs, people who migrate within India would also have to allowed to vote by proxy. If not, I foresee a PIL being filed in the Supreme Court against discrimination. Justifiably so, in my opinion.

But if proxy voting is opened to internal migrants, that leads to another set of problems – outright sale of votes and massive fraud. Political parties would simply purchase proxy votes.

Now, it is possible to imagine some restrictions that can be placed on proxy voting. Most of them sound impractical though. A voter can only cast his/her own vote and not more than one proxy vote? That’ll disenfranchise people who have several family members living away. A voter can only cast his/her own vote and for all (or N number of) family members/relatives? This would lead to sale of votes as political parties would get the heads of families to vote on behalf of their family members. This is not a non-issue in a quasi-feudal society like ours. Even now, in many villages, you can easily find heads of families “supervising” the votes of their family members. Not to forget that there are plenty of people who would prefer their friends to vote by proxy for them rather than family members.

While I think that proxy voting is the most feasible idea to allow NRIs to vote, I have not yet been able to convince myself that it is actually doable in practice (most feasible =/= feasible enough).

Other ideas floating around include things like voting at the Indian Embassies. I find them non-starters because of logistical reasons and also because I doubt that many NRIs will take the trouble of traveling significant distances (and at considerable personal expense) to Embassies and Consulates to cast their votes. In large and/or expensive countries like USA, Canada and UK (which have significant number of NRIs), it is unlikely that NRIs residing outside of cities that house the Embassies/Consulate will actually exercise their voting rights. In West Asia, second-home to many NRIs, the NRI population- in general – can’t afford to take a day off from work. Oh, and then we have the same logistical issue of getting the votes to their respective constituencies in time to be counted (already discussed in the context of postal ballots).

In summary, I am yet to think of a solution that will enable NRI voting while not adversely impacting resident voters. But I am open to ideas.

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  1. May 2, 2009 at 8:12 am

    is there a particular reason why actual hard-copies of ballots need to be shifted? what are the problems with doing these things digitally? not reliable enough? (as in, easy for someone to manipulate)… not easy to check identities? those just seem to be technology issues (assuming they are true).

    I am sure the real reason is something obvious that I am just unable to think of right now.

  2. May 2, 2009 at 8:49 am

    @Rahul: As of now, the postal ballots are, well, postal. They are paper-based. You can’t scan them to transmit them digitally because that will spoil the secrecy of a secret ballot.

    If overseas voting is to be made electronic, how is that to be done? I mean, EVMs are constituency-specific. It could be a machine that, on authentication, will generate and display the correct electronic ballot on a touch-screen display. And I suppose you could then encrypt the data and send it over to India. It could then be decrypted and sent electronically to the correct constituencies.

    I would worry about the cost of implementing such a solution versus the benefits of doing it. We don’t see 50%+ voting even in urban, educated parts of India. How likely is it that NRIs would travel to the nearest Embassies and vote in numbers large enough to justify large-scale changes in the system?

    PS: Now imagine that this new machine didn’t work in an Embassy. Or there was some other unforeseen glitch. How will the re-polling be done? It is easily done in India, where people don’t live too far from the polling booths. We can’t expect people to stay in New York an extra day to vote, can we?

    PPS: My post assumes that voter registration isn’t going to be much of a problem. That’s not going to be simple either. For every “right” that a citizen has, the State has a corresponding “duty”. So, if NRIs have voting rights, the State will have to make efforts to register as many of them as possible. Imagine doing that in countries where we don’t even have an Embassy. The more I think about it, the more nightmarish the logistical situation looks to me. And I haven’t even studied electoral laws, which will have to be complied in everything.

  3. May 2, 2009 at 9:37 am

    Oh, I was thinking something even simpler (and, perhaps impossible)… doing it online! :D as in, whenever an NRI visits his/her embassy (or visits india) he can collect a voter ID that is attached to his online identity… login, vote, logout…. :D :D likely to be ripe for manipulation by some college kid? perhaps.. but then, it would probably be easier to solve that problem rather than try and get all NRIs to actually send paper ballots back to india (or even allow someone else to vote for them)

  4. May 2, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    @Rahul: Heh. Yeah, I doubt if online voting is going to be an acceptable mode right now. Too many security hassles (and if you read “Schneier on Security” blog, not easy to solve either).

  5. May 8, 2009 at 10:56 am

    i suppose the our prime minister has taken this issue into consideration.. and NRIs may get to vote from the next election hopefully…!! NRIs votes does matter…

  1. May 12, 2009 at 8:30 pm

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