By Rozelle Laha:
India is a democratic country. Voting is a fundamental right conferred to the citizens of the country by the Indian Constitution. Voting is a means of expressing one’s one views on the policy making process of the country. Democracy never calls for any kind of compulsion to do anything.
Making the voting process mandatory in a democracy stands in violation of the principals of a democracy. In a successful democracy, people should be aware of government’s move and its policies. However, the government can encourage and motivate the citizens but, it should be at the discretion of the citizens if they want to vote or not. Compelling them to vote is not the solution to the problem of low turnout in polling booths.
It is true that in India, in recent years, there has been a very low turnout on the election days. But, ensuring compulsory attendance in the polling booths on the election days cannot lead to the formation of a perfect government in the country.
If voting becomes an obligation and the government begins to punish people for not voting, then people will definitely go and cast their vote out of fear of the punishment but will not vote for the deserving candidate or a candidate based on his/her performance. As a result, even the political parties will not be bothered to campaign honestly and convince people about the policies, as they know that in any case everyone is going to vote, for or against them. Even without much work and promises they will garner votes.
The whole meaning of the government shall be “for the people, of the people and by the people” will lose its meaning if people are forced to exercise their will. It is better if less number of well-informed people vote, rather than a huge number of uninformed people vote. In any case, it is only the informed group that will be able to question and criticize the credibility of the policies which will be formulated or whichever government will come to power, even though it will affect all the people.
Some of the common reasons in India for why people do not cast votes are that they do not have faith any candidate; they have to travel a long distance for casting votes and so on.
So, if more people come out to vote, more polling booths need to be set up. That means investment of more money. This investment would have made sense, if all the people who came to vote voted sincerely and not just press any button as they were bound to do it or be penalized.
A list of countries in the world follows compulsory voting method:
France (senate only)
Some of the ways by which these countries oblige its citizens to both are:
Belgium: citizens who do not cast votes for four consecutive years, lose voting rights for the next 10 years and they it also becomes tough for them to get jobs in the country’s public sector.
Australia: the citizens are forced to pay a fine amount of AU$20-$AU50 (about Â£9 – Â£21) and faces risk of imprisonment if they refuse to pay the fine amount.
Bolivia: The citizens get a card for participating in the voting process. If the citizens fail to produce the card as an identity proof during the three months after election, they cannot draw the salary from any bank.
Greece: Citizens cannot obtain driving license, if they fail to cast the votes.
However, in Venezuela and Netherlands the compulsory voting process has been eliminated. The Netherlands government removed the policy in 1967. It saw a 20 per cent dip in the turnout rate of the voters.
Venezuela put an end to the compulsory voting process in 1993 and witnessed a 30 percent drop in the turnout rate.
David J. Myers and Robert E. O’Connor explored the consequences of mandatory voting in the 1978 Venezuelan elections in The Undecided Respondent in Mandatory Voting Settings: a Venezuelan Exploration the Western Political Quarterly:
“Using Venezuelan data from 1978, we demonstrate the utility of discriminant function analysis in helping to provide an understanding of these voters. In an election in which the two major candidates did not differ sharply on issues positions, and the “out” party’s candidate was the surprise winner, we argue that undecided respondents cast their ballot overwhelmingly for the candidate of the “out” party in an effort to remove the “in” party from office. Finding the incumbent party wanting and distrusting the militant left, the undecideds voted for the “out” centrist party although they viewed its candidate no more favorably than the candidate of the “in” centrist party. This exercise of retrospective voting suggests that, at least in Venezuela, disappointment with government performance does not necessarily lead to support of militant left or right parties.” (Vol. 36, No. 3 (Sep., 1983), pp. 420-433)
According to a data obtained from The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance website, the percentage of invalid votes is directly proportional to high turnout rate.
Voter Turn-out Percentage in India
Voter Turn-out Percentage in Australia
In Australia, the turnout rate of voters has always been more than 90 percent since 1946, and the invalid votes have been as high as 6.80 percent. However, in India, the turnout rates of the voters have never been more than 63 percent and the percentages of invalid votes have never been more than 3.20 percent.
So, it is clear that mandatory votes give rise to invalid votes and random votes as well and such voting can only ensure forceful fulfillment of the right to vote and never ensure the authenticity of the elected government. In 2009, the Narendra Modi government endorsed a law making voting compulsory in the Gujarat Assembly. He also said that non-voting will attract penalty.
Several criticized this move of the state government. Jayanthi Natarajan, a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha and AICC spokesperson said “Mr Modi claims that several other countries have compulsory voting, but what BJP apologists fail to mention is that out of 32 countries which have laws of compulsory voting, only 19 enforce the law, and of these, only Belgium has a punitive section, like the Gujarat law.” (Source: Deccan Chronicle, January 4th, 2010). In the same article, Natarajan also added that, “…the question of the abstain or “none of the above” provision in voting is pending before the Supreme Court. It has always been a mystery to me why someone who does not want to vote for any of the candidates would take the trouble to come to the voting booth, and press a button to say “none of the above”. Why bother to do this?”
The Apex Court of the country rejected a Private Member’s Bill in 2005 that sought to make voting compulsory.
Supreme Court headed by a bench of Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and Justice P. Sathasivam cited that “ ‘the people cannot be taken to polling booths by enacting laws,’ … if people in Kerala and other states were coming out in large numbers to exercise their franchise it was because of their awareness and not due to any legal provisions.”
The Union Law Minister, Veerappa Moily on April 30 expressed his eagerness to make voting compulsory. He cited the decreasing trend of the turnout rate among the voters in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha elections.
Moily said “India needs to graduate to a level where everyone casts vote and nurtures democracy. In an ideal situation, voting could be made compulsory. Everyone should contribute and nurture the largest democracy.’’
Source: (Afternoon DC: Govt, EC differ over making Voting Compulsory, an article by Prashant Hamine Monday, May 10, 2010)
The Election Commission of India, however, disapproves the idea of compulsory voting in the country. “For India, it is full of difficulties. We also consider that democracy and compulsion do not go hand-in-hand,” Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi said.
Former senior EC official K J Rao acknowledged for conducting free and fair elections in Bihar said “because of law, the percentage of voting may increase, but effective implementation would be impracticable.” (Source: New Delhi, Dec 22 (PTI))
However, with the demand for compulsory voting comes the necessity of a lot of other issues. First of all, proper voter ID cards should be issued to all the citizens who are eligible to vote. There are many people who do not go o vote as they think that it is a tiresome job to attain the ID cards. In India, there is a huge migrant population. If we make voting compulsory and pass laws to penalize the people for not casting their vote, we have to make separate laws or arrange for some method to ensure that this population, that move from one place to another in search of jobs, can vote
I would like to conclude my article with the following quote from Dr. K. Nageshwar, Member of Andhra Pradesh Legislative Council and professor in the Department of Journalism, Osmania University.
“Low voting turn out is certainly a cause of concern. But, we cannot look for undemocratic solutions to problems in democracy. Let us also recall the experience of Internal Emergency of 1975. There was a sense of fear in the society. Offices functioned punctually. Family Planning targets were met. The colleges and Schools functioned normally. Can we welcome emergency? People cynical of democratic deficit often suggest that India will prosper if there is a military dictatorship. But, the experiences of military dictatorships like Pakistan are before us.”