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Indian Polity

Voting Rights for Overseas Citizens

  • 28 Mar 2022
  • 7 min read

For Prelims: NRI, ECI, Postal ballots, ETPBS.

For Mains: Voting Rights for Overseas Citizens.

Why in News?

Recently, the Union Minister for Law and Justice in response to a question in the Lok Sabha stated that the government is exploring the possibility of allowing online voting for Non-Resident Indians (NRI).

What is the Background?

  • In 2020, the Election Commission of India (ECI) in a proposal to the Law Ministry proposed to extend the facility of postal ballots to eligible NRIs for the various State Assembly elections to be held in 2021.
  • The ECI then, had proposed amending the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, in order to allow this facility.
  • The postal ballots were to be sent to NRIs electronically after which they will send the ballots back, after choosing their candidate, via post.

What is the Current Voting Process for Overseas Voters in Indian elections?

  • It was through the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act, 2010, eligible NRIs who had stayed abroad beyond six months were allowed to vote, but only in person at the polling station where they have been enrolled as an overseas elector.
    • Prior to 2010, an Indian citizen who is an eligible voter and was residing abroad for more than six months, would not have been able to vote in elections. This was because the NRI’s name was deleted from electoral rolls if he or she stayed outside the country for more than six months at a stretch.
  • An NRI can vote in the constituency in his/her place of residence, as mentioned in the passport, is located.
  • He/She can only vote in person and will have to produce her passport in original at the polling station for establishing identity.

How has the existing facility worked so far?

  • Low Proportion of Eligible Overseas:
    • From merely 11,846 overseas voters who registered in 2014, the number went up to close to a lakh in 2019. However, only low proportion of such voters turned up to vote.
  • Provision to Visit the Polling Booth Discouraged Eligible Voters:
    • The provision of having to visit the polling booth in person has discouraged eligible voters from exercising their mandate.

What Steps are taken by the Government for Overseas Voters?

  • In the winter session of Parliament in 2017, the government proposed to remove the restriction imposed by Section 20A of the Representation of the People Act.
    • 20A of the Representation of the People Act required them to be physically present to vote in their constituencies.
    • The Bill provided for overseas voters to be able to appoint a proxy to cast their votes on their behalf, subject to conditions laid down in the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961.
    • The Bill was later passed in 2018, but lapsed with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha.
  • The ECI then approached the government to permit NRIs to vote via postal ballots.
    • Postal ballots is similar to a system that is already used by service voters, (a member of the armed Forces of the Union; or a member of a force to which provisions of the Army Act, 1950 are applicable) which is the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System or ETPBS.

What is Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS)?

  • About:
    • For Service Voters:
      • The Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 was amended in 2016 to allow service voters to use the ETPBS.
      • Under this system, postal ballots are sent electronically to registered service voters.
      • The service voter can then download the ETPB (along with a declaration form and covers), register their mandate on the ballot and send it to the returning officer of the constituency via ordinary mail.
      • The post will include an attested declaration form (after being signed by the voter in the presence of an appointed senior officer who will attest it).
    • For NRIs (Proposed):
      • In the case of NRI voters, those seeking to vote through ETPBS will have to inform the returning officer at least five days after notification of the election.
      • The returning officer will then send the ballot electronically via the ETPBS.
      • The NRI voter can then register her/his mandate on the ballot printout and send it back with an attested declaration in a process similar to the service voter.
  • Benefits:
    • The postal ballot method has been recognised by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance as a means to allow overseas voters to exercise their right, subject to certain conditions normally related to the time spent abroad or the work carried out abroad.
      • International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance is an intergovernmental organisation that works to support democratic processes and institutions.

Way Forward

  • A postal ballot mechanism that allows for proper authentication of the ballot at designated consular/embassy offices and an effective postal system should ease this process for NRIs, but rules must be clearly framed for eligibility on the basis of time spent away from the country.

Source: TH

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