Voting Rights for Overseas Citizens

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    • Union Minister for Law and Justice in response to a question in the Lok Sabha stated that the government was exploring the possibility of allowing online voting for non-resident Indians (NRI).

    Background

    • In 2017, the government proposed to remove the restriction imposed by Section 20A of the Representation of the People Act, which 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 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 which is the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System or ETPBS.

    Current Status of Voting for Overseas Citizens

    • After the passing of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act, 2010: NRIs who had stayed abroad beyond six months have been able to vote, but only in person at the polling station where they have been enrolled as an overseas elector.
    • However, only a very low proportion of overseas residents actually registered or turned up to vote.
    • The provision of having to visit the polling booth in person has discouraged eligible voters from exercising their mandate.
    • The Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 was amended in 2016: to allow service voters to use the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System (ETPBS).
      • Under this system, postal ballots are sent electronically to registered service voters.
      • The service voter can then register their mandate on the ballot and send it back via ordinary mail.
      • The ECI proposed to extend this facility to overseas voters as well.
    • In the case of overseas voters: their address mentioned in the passport is taken as the place of ordinary residence and chosen as the constituency for the overseas voter to enrol in.

    Previous mandate

    • 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.

    How has the existing facility worked so far?

    • From merely 11,846 overseas voters who registered in 2014, the number went up to close to a lakh in 2019.
      • But the bulk of these voters (nearly 90%) belonged to just one State, Kerala.
    • The Representation of the People Act: envisaged voters as only the “ordinary residents” in a constituency who will choose representatives to represent their local interests while meditating on larger issues in the legislature.
    • Some democracies that already allow absentee voting stipulate that overseas electors are eligible to vote provided they are not abroad for a specified period of time and/or if they mention“intent to return”.
    • Section 20-1A, Part III of the Representation of the People Act addresses this to some extent by qualifying “a person absenting himself temporarily from his place of ordinary residence shall not by reason thereof cease to be ordinarily resident therein”.
      • And in essence provides for NRIs who are temporarily staying abroad to be eligible to vote in their local constituencies.

    What is ETPBS and how does it function?

    • 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).
    • The ECI proposed to extend this facility to overseas voters as well.
      • For this to commence, the Law Ministry has to amend the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961.
    • 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.
    • Except in this case: the senior officer would be appointed by the Indian diplomatic or consular representative in the resident country of the NRI.
    • The ECI has not specified whether the voter should send in the ballot through ordinary post to the returning officer or drop it off at the Indian consular office/embassy, which will then send the envelopes constituency-wise to the returning officers.

    Are postal ballots a viable means of voting?

    • The ETPBS method allowed for greater turnout among service voters in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
    • With increasing mobility of citizens across countries for reasons related to work, the postal ballot method has been recognised by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (an intergovernmental organization that works to support democratic processes and institutions) 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.
    • 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