Friday, April 18, 2014

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Casting a NOTA Vote : Is it Worth the Effort?



It is the election season and India is coming out in huge numbers to vote their choice. Whether they vote for a change or not, it is heartening that they are taking part in this festival of democracy and expressing themselves. Yesterday we had a major phase with more than 121 seats being voted for and one of my close friend voted in this phase. In the evening he was happy to forfeit his right of secrecy and reveal that he voted NOTA as none of the candidates in his constituency meet his criteria of an ideal candidate. This was the start of conversation when I found out that though my friend had expressed his choice using the most effective tool available, his knowledge about the option was relatively superficial. And so I thought to write up a post in case this can reach out to even a very small fraction of the voting population before they vote their conscience so that they take up an informed decision before pressing the NOTA option at the end of the series of buttons on those electronic devices.

What exactly is NOTA? - NOTA is nothing new to most of India which have been showered with this option in many aspects of their life – whether it is multiple choice examinations where many still believe that if this is an option it is the best bet or TV channels asking you to voice your opinion even if you want to say answer to a question as can’t say. This is just an extension of the same concept to the elections in India. NOTA stand for “None Of The Above” and allows a voter to express his opinion of not preferring any of the candidates from a particular constituency.

Though most of us know this to be a recent introduction to the polling procedure but it is not the case and this option was always available to the voters. There was a provision where the voter could approach the presiding officer of the polling booth and ask for a registration of his / her choice of casting a vote against all the existing candidates for that seat. The major issue with that was this provision was against the right of secrecy that our constitution guarantees us to ensure that we are not intimidated by candidates based on how we vote. Thus as in most cases today, Supreme Court of India came to rescue of our right. The apex court, ruling on a petition by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties seeking to allow voters the right to express their dissatisfaction through EVMs, noted that at least 13 other countries provided voters with such an option. Thus came the decision from court which as per a governmental press release says (references for all the press release and other quotations are provided at the end):

The Hon’ble Supreme Court, in its judgment dated 27th September, 2013, in Writ Petition (C ) No. 161 of 2004 (People’s Union for Civil Liberties & Anr.Vs Union of India & Anr), has directed that the Commission should make necessary provision in the ballot papers/EVMs for “None of the Above (NOTA)” option so that the electors who do not wish to vote for any of the candidates can exercise their right not to vote for any candidate without violation of the secrecy of their decision. Rules 41 (2), 41(3) and 49-O of the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, have been held to be ultra vires Section 128 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 and Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

However, one is bound to ask about the relevance of this option and its effectiveness. Does it bring a major change to - How elections are fought or candidates chosen? Would parties be now afraid of citizens casting this option? For me right now the answer to these questions is more NO then YES. My problem with this is though the highest court of the land gave country this option which upholds our rights to secrecy; it stopped short of making it effective enough. Voters have the option to vote against all the candidates but their vote would be considered as an expression of willingness to abstain from the election process at best. As per current provisions, no matter how enthusiastically the electorate opts for this option, the maximum impact this would have on a candidates win is to reduce the margin of votes or tilt the race in favor of a candidate who may have not won in absence of the NOTA option. However it does very little in terms of getting you a set of fresh candidates to choose from. All the votes counted as NOTA are practically considered invalid and would not be considered even in the total number of votes being casted when it comes to calculating the vote percentage. Even if majority of votes casted are NOTA, still the candidates with most number of non-NOTA votes wins the election and earns the right to represent a population majority of which chose against all the candidates. This is what election commission has to say on the issue:

As per the provisions of clause (a) of Rule 64 of Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, read with Section 65 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, the candidate who has polled the largest number of valid votes is to be declared elected by the Returning Officer. Therefore, even if the number of electors opting for NOTA option is more than the number of votes polled by any of the candidates, the candidate who secures the largest number of votes has to be declared elected.

A question has been raised whether the votes polled against the NOTA option considered for determining the forfeiture of security deposit. The votes polled – against the NOTA option cannot be treated as valid votes. Under Section 158 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, it is the total number of valid votes polled by all the contesting candidates that is to be taken into account for calculating the one-sixth of votes polled by individual candidates for return of security deposit. Thus, it is clarified that the votes polled against the NOTA option is not to be taken into account for calculating the total valid votes polled by the contesting candidates for the purpose of return of security deposit.

"It is clarified that NOTA has the same effect as not voting for any candidate under the earlier provisions of Rule 49-O. Therefore, even if, in any extreme case, the number of votes against NOTA is more than the number of votes secured by the candidates, the candidate who secures the largest number of votes among the contesting candidates shall be declared to be elected as per the provisions of Rule 64."

Lets see how the process works. Suppose in constituency with 1000 voters, there are three candidates A, B and C. After the elections let the votes be: A – 100, B – 200, C – 150, NOTA – 550. The results would say that candidate B won the election and had a vote share of 44% while only 20% voters voted for him / her and 55% asked for a new candidate altogether.

The reason given for such a method is that it is being introduced for the first time and authorities would like to understand how voters react to it and use the option. But why should voters use this option when it is as good as they staying home. What impact other than some PR questions would this have on the thinking of political parties who now just have another variable in their election equations rather than a push to bring good candidates. And NO, I am not asking people to not use the NOTA option. I just want everyone to be informed of what they are choosing when they are using that option. They are choosing to not vote rather than vote to have a fresh poll. I agree that this is a good start but it is just a very first step of what should at least be the basic tooth for this tool. I strongly feel a fresh election in case more than 50% of electorate chooses for this option should be something that election commission should consider and implement in some way or the other.



Please pour in all your reasons in favor of NOTA and ways to make it meaningful in the comments below.

Like the post, hate it, bored of it, wanna kill the author or simply have suggestions for improvement? What good is it to keep them within - Go express yourself too as I am doing here - vent out how you feel about the post in the Comments section below !! Really appreciate all your inputs :)


References:
Picture Credits : http://cdn.youthkiawaaz.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/06/go-none-button-elections-two-sides/NOTA.jpg

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