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NOTA Voting

Start but a long way ahead

By Dr.S.Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR)

To prevent tainted politicians from being elected to legislative bodies and to bring purity in elections, the Supreme Court recently directed the Election Commission to permit voters the right to reject all candidates while casting their vote.  Now a button “None of the Above” (NOTA) would be added in electronic voting machines (EVM) below the list of candidates in the fray for voters to express their disapproval.

Coming on the heels of the Court’s order disqualifying convicted MPs and MLAs and the Union Government’s super-urgent ‘rescinded’ ordinance drama to nullify the order, the NOTA directive underscores serious concern about the way elections are conducted, Parliamentary institutions functioning and the rot that has set in over the years. Wherein, there is realization of the need for urgent corrective measures to save India’s democracy from degeneration and decay.

NOTA voting will give voters the right to reject all candidates contesting in a constituency, enable them to register their disapproval of “unworthy candidates patronized by Parties” and compel Parties to field only candidates with high moral and ethical principles known for their integrity, discarding those with doubtful credentials and unpopular image.

Observed, the judges, “The NOTA option would accelerate effective political participation in the present state of the democratic system” and voters would “in fact be empowered”.    It facilitates expression of rejection which is presently articulated   by abstaining from voting and might increase voter turn-out.  

The assumption is that voters want candidates who uphold high moral values and given a chance, would reject suspects.  However, in reality, even goondas and criminals manage to enter the Central and State legislative bodies thanks to their followers and vote-banks.

Undeniably, NOTA might be a potent weapon to stop goons but it alone is insufficient. We need comprehensive electoral reforms which are long overdue as criminalization of politics has taken deep roots and spreading beyond political institutions and pervading society.

Indeed, one cannot help be pessimistic in an atmosphere charged with all-round corruption.  So, critics may question the assumption that NOTA will only work against undeserving candidates.  

Negative voting or rejection of all candidates is prevalent in 13 countries including Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Finland, Greece, Spain, Sweden, Russia etc. Under the guise of “against all”, “scratch” vote or NOTA.

Pertinently, the right to reject all candidates is not a new idea. In 2004 the then Chief Election Commissioner recommended the provision for negative/neutral voting in voting machine to the Government. Again, in 2009 the EC told the Supreme Court that it wished to offer the NOTA option to voters.  But it came to naught.

True, the existing Rule 49-0 of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 allows voters the option to reject all candidates.  The voter has merely to inform the Presiding Officer and fill a prescribed form. But this procedure does not protect secrecy in casting votes as it is done openly in the presence of polling booth officials as the EVMs’ have no button to indicate rejection of all candidates and nor does it allow non-voting once a voter is before the machine.

This rule helps reduce non-voting to some extent, eliminates impersonation and proxy voting using the votes of non-voters.  But, there have been many instances where Presiding officers are unaware of this rule and have to be enlightened by voters insisting on rejecting all candidates, thereby causing commotion in polling booths.   

Special mention must be made of Russia where NOTA was once very popular.  In the 1991 elections, NOTA led to large number of re-elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies. More than 100 sitting members of the Communist Party of Soviet Union were defeated paving way for Boris Yeltsin.

But in 2006 it was abolished as it led to many re-elections and increasing election costs.  Yet some sections want to revive this provision.  Questionably, in any political system, there are ways of using and mis-using any instrument and support for and against it might vary according to the strength of support for the idea.

In the US, Nevada State adopted NOTA in 1978 as a standard item in the ballot paper.  But attempts to introduce it failed in California. In Poland, NOTA equivalent or “against voting” was exercised vigorously and led to the defeat of leading Communists in 1989.  Bangladesh adopted it in 2008.  In Pakistan, there was some support for this provision but its Election Commission was opposed.

Besides, there are other forms of expressing disapproval of all candidates.  One can boycott elections, recall, Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. Interestingly, blank vote i.e. returning the ballot paper without marking any preference is practised in Spain. A blank vote is necessary where voting is compulsory and is used as a mark of protest.

For anarchists, non-voting is a strategy to convey their opposition to voting as unethical.  For them, non-voting is a key strategy to bring about social and political change.

In South Africa, anti-voting campaigns by poor citizens on the plea that none of the parties truly represented them is common.  “No land, no house, no vote” is a common slogan at election times led by many social movements.

On the whole, experience in various countries does not point to any drastic cleansing of politics accomplished through the NOTA option. On the other hand, there is a probability that it would be used as a synonym for poll boycott. Given NOTA’s publicity to promote enthusiasm among voters to exercise this option and see the fun.

Clearly, we need the right to reject all candidates in the same way as we need the right to choose our candidates.  But, our problems are not just limited to the kind of candidates contesting elections.  NOTA, by itself, will not work miracles.  We have to introduce comprehensive electoral reforms  encompassing party funding, inner party democracy including election to party offices, electioneering including framing of manifestos, poll promises and campaigning.

India’s priority should be to fight political corruption corroding the entire system.  NOTA can be a beginning but certainly not the end stage of reforms.  Needless to say, it is getting publicity disproportionate to its utility. —— INFA

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