Compulsory voting: proposal to criminalise and punish voters
by R Chandrasekaran on 10 Aug 2009 4 Comments

A bill to make voting compulsory for every eligible voter in elections to the Lok Sabha or State Assembly has been introduced in Parliament. It proposes to levy ‘penalties’ for not voting and to ‘incentivise’ voting by providing rewards. The penalties would be - a fine of Rs 500 or two days’ imprisonment, or forfeiture of the ration card. In case the abstaining voter is a Government servant, the penalty would be loss of “10 days salary” and “delay (of) promotion for a period of two years.”

The rewards: “preference to persons in government jobs and admission in institutions of higher education if they exercise their franchise for 15 years without a break.”

The first question that comes to mind: what is the motive for forcing people in a democracy to vote? Democracy, by definition, bestows the right “not to vote,” whereas this bill proposes to treat “non-voting” as a crime, making abstaining voters subject to criminal trials. Be that as it may, there are numerous legal, moral, humanitarian and feasibility angles that need to be considered.

In many constituencies, candidates put up by major parties are found to be facing criminal charges; some even contest while in prison. The proposed law on compulsory voting seeks to penalise intelligent voters for actually not voting for one of the “tainted and undesirable” candidates, and seeks to ensure that at least one tainted or “law-breaker” candidate actually wins and goes on to become a “law-maker”!

Currently, there is neither a minimum qualification nor a maximum age limit prescribed to be eligible for contesting elections. Where poorly qualified candidates and infirm candidates contest, why should voters be forced to elect one of them, when they would not be able to efficiently or even partially execute their constitutional and legislative functions?

A totally unacceptable proposal is to impose penalties such as deprivation of ration cards of the abstaining voter. Ration cards for procuring “subsidised food articles” is given to poor people. Depriving poor people of their Ration Cards (for unspecified periods) would amount to condemning crores of them (and their children) to death by starvation for the “crime” of not voting. Can such persons be deprived of their Ration Cards when a “Right to Food” bill has been promised by none other than the reigning Congress regime? The alternative is a “Rs.500/- fine”. How many poor people can bear to pay the fine? It seems the bill is a ploy to deprive poor people of the very right to live.

This proposal singles out Government Servants for “special punishment” for not voting: “10 days salary” cut and “delay (of) promotion for a period of two years.” The denial of “10 days salary” amounts to one-third of the month’s salary, which in case of a cabinet secretary would be about Rs. 26,000/-. An MP (who receives innumerable tax-free perks from the same public money and is a de facto Government servant) will pay a fine of mere Rs. 500/- for “not voting.”

There are at least seventy two crore voters in India. Typically, in any election, at least thirty-five crore people do not vote. To identify each abstaining voter, determine whether or not he / she was sick, old etc and why he / she did not vote, then imposing penalties on them, would entail appointing several crore people (as police informers) and filing of crores of cases in the courts! When would the cases be heard, who will determine guilt and who will impose penalties – has the initiator of the bill thought of all this? Also, can the governments afford to appoint crores of people to persecute Indians who do not vote because they do not like the candidates on offer?

Members of the security forces and the election staff (numbering millions) are not able to vote. Those travelling and not in station also do not vote. There are also innumerable reasons as to why a person cannot vote. Is it feasible to track down each such person, determine the reasons for his not voting and prosecute him? Doesn’t the mind boggle at the incredible amount of resources that would have to be deployed to ensure compulsory voting? In a nation where there are at least fifty crore poor people, can we afford to fritter away precious resources on such absurd pursuits?

Those who win elections are supposed to represent the people of their constituency. This can happen only when they are present continuously in the Parliament / Legislature; participate in debates; raise issues concerning the people; and vote on all matters necessitating voting. When legislators are not present, it means they are letting down their voters, for which there is no penalty! This bill proposes that voters must be punished for not voting, but legislators need not be punished for not doing their duty! Double-standards are plainly visible.

The constitution currently does not cast a duty (i.e., compulsion) on voters to exercise their franchise. Forcing voters to vote for one of the candidates, surreptitiously nullifies 49(O) of the Conduct of Election rules, which empowers voters to cast a “no vote.”

The Supreme Court on 17 April 2009 has already said:
a) how seriously a voter takes his statutory right to exercise his franchise is best left to him and
b) imposing penalties is an inhuman method to make a voter go to a polling booth.
Yet, disregarding the Supreme Court, the concerned MP has chosen to introduce a bill to make voting ‘compulsory’. (1)

Now consider the rewards proposed - “preference to persons in government jobs and admission in institutions of higher education if they exercise their franchise for 15 years without a break.”

Typically, people are barred from applying for government jobs by the age of 27 years. A person is first eligible to vote at the age of 18. To be able to receive a preference in government jobs, the person would have to vote continuously for at least 15 yrs, that is, till the age of 33 years. This not only takes him beyond the eligible age limit for a job (27 years), but fails to take into account that no voter is called upon to continuously vote for 15 consecutive years. Even if the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Parishad elections are not clubbed, a normal voter will vote only twice in five years.

Even worse is the promise of “preference in admissions to institutions of higher education.” Normally, a person is completes higher education by 25 years; to be able to receive preference in education, he/she would have to wait till 33 years at least! Apparently, this incentive is a bogus one.

Then there is a caste angle. A very large population of Hindu voters comprise the “unreserved class” and it is common knowledge that most political parties refuse to consider them as citizens. For example, in Tamil Nadu, the ‘Dravidian’ groups are the major players for the past 80 years and have during this time consistently refused to consider the “minoritised” Brahmins as citizens. Deprived of all opportunities, many have left the state and will never return. While this has been happening, none of the other parties (otherwise big supporters of ‘minority’ rights) have even mildly protested this sustained ill-treatment.

Why then should Brahmins be forced to vote for their oppressors? Bihar, ruled by the JDU-BJP combine, is turning out to be worse than Dravida-nadu. One section of homeless flood-hit Hindus were denied blankets and other amenities because of caste reasons. And none of the political parties protested. Why then should they be forced to vote for any of the unconcerned political contestants?

Lastly, and importantly, the citizenship-challenging “Aryan Invasion Theory” continues to be propagated by several political groups, with none of the other parties demanding that its propagation be made a punishable offence. Since the citizenship of a large population of Hindus is under challenge and it has not been opposed by political parties, what exactly is the need for them to vote for the supporters of such an illegal and anti-constitutional agenda?

Coming back to the motive to enforce compulsory voting, in the past some people close to Hindutva parties have lamented that Hindus not voting in large numbers increases the voting power of the ‘minorities;’ hence minority-appeasement is growing. If Hindutva-espousing parties want Hindus to vote in large numbers, then they must take credible steps to convince Hindus that they stand for the protection of their interests and that none shall be excluded from the political scenario on ‘caste basis’ as is currently happening all over India. These parties must understand that if the politics of “exclusion and punishment” are pursued, those suffering will never vote for the simple reason that they have no stake in the political process of the country.

Thus one can see that besides feasibility, there are many legal, social and humanitarian angles to the proposal to make voting compulsory.


The author is an independent researcher

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