Authors: Nakul Chadha and Abhay Raj Mishra*
“ I went to vote once, but I got too scared. I couldn’t decide whom to vote for.”–Andy Warhol
The above-mentioned statement by an American artist to a certain extent defines the situation of almost every voter while casting his vote in a democracy. Every voter gets stuck in the dilemma that to whom he should vote so that it can be in a best interest for him as well as for the nation. Democracy is something which provides the citizens to participate and help in the formation of a good governance with their choice of change. It is essential that best of the men should be chosen for the survival of a democracy in a country. Thus sometimes there comes a situation when voter has no confidence in the candidates that are standing in the fray, so he does not want to cast his vote to any of them.
Before NOTA, if a person wanted to abstain from voting to show his rage against the candidates, he has to go through a process that annihilated his secrecy. Hence, it pushed a need for a provision that allowed secrecy of every voter intacted even if he does not want to vote to any of the candidtes standing in the fray.
Hence, NOTA was introduced in the year 2013 keeping above points in mind by the Supreme Court through People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India judgement. Although, It does not provide the Right to Reject and thus candidate who has got the maximum vote eventually wins the election irrespective of the number of NOTA votes. Still, India became the 14th country to introduce a concept of negative voting.
The authors have critically analyzed the situation for which NOTA was required. The purpose of this article is to evaluate whether this reform in election process i.e. introduction of NOTA has contributed to strengthen the democracy or not. The authors have criticallly analysed the judgement of the Supreme Court in the case of PUCL v. UOI, 2013 and it also takes into consideration the belief and opinion of ECI about NOTA. It reviews the role of NOTA in the election process.
The authors have taken into account the issues like flaws and loopholes that are present in the provision and thus analyzing it and suggesting some of the measures that can be taken to make it more helpful in conduction of free and fare election and thus strengthening the backbone of democracy.
Background – Need For The NOTA
India stands as a paragon in front of many arising democratic countries and is also designated as one of the spirited democracy across the globe. One of the principle virtues of a democratic state is its free and fare elections. It is the fundamental principle for every democratic state to have Right to Vote as a constitutional right for the citizens and conduction of election in free and fair form. Although we are proud of our democratic system but there are many area that has to be strenghtened or renewed and in such a large country it cannot be done in one go but through a gradual development until we realize the true potential of a well-operative democracy.
The main objective of NOTA was to increase the number of voters in the election and for maintaining the secrecy of a voter in an election. As secrecy of voting is one of the pivotal factor that keeps up the purity of a election. Introduction of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) and implementation of rule 49-0 of The Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 raised the foremost concern for the Election Commission of India (ECI) as it made impossible to protect the privacy of voters who wanted to abstain from voting.
In order to fix the critical flaw regarding the secrecy of voters with respect to Right to Reject,
the Election Commission on 10.12.2001, addressed a letter to the Secretary, Ministry of Law and Justice. The letter declared subsequent opinions that the electoral right present under Section 79(d) also includes a right not to cast vote. It also suggested to provide a panel in the EVMs so that an elector may indicate that he does not wish to vote for any of the aforementioned candidate and at last gave the viewpoint that Such number of votes expressing dissatisfaction with all the candidates may be recorded in a result sheet. Although no actions were taken by the ministry in this regard.
The fate of the Right to Privacy while voting was finally decided in the case of Peoples’s Union For Civil Liberties v. Union of India. In the afore-mentioned case, the Apex court stuck down Rules 41(2) and (3) and 49-O of the Election Rules as being ultra vires section 128 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 and Article 19(1)(a) and Article 21 of the Constitution to the extent they violated the secrecy of voting.
Rule 49-O – Elector deciding not to vote – “If an elector, after his electoral roll number has been duly entered in the register of voters in Form 17A and has put his signature or thumb impression thereon as required under sub-rule (1) of rule 49L, decides not to record his vote, a remark to this effect shall be made against the said entry in Form 17A by the presiding officer and the signature or thumb impression of the elector shall be obtained against such remark.”
Citing section 128 and section 79(d) of RPA, court duly quoted that ‘secrecy of casting vote is duly recognised and is necessary for strengthening democracy’ to maintain the purity of elections.
Section 79(d) defines electoral right of a person to vote or refrain from voting at an election whereas section 128 of the Act obliges any person performing any duty in connection with the recording or counting of votes at an election to maintain secrecy and penalizing in failure.
If the international provisions would be taken in consideration then Article 21(3) of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 25(B) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides for secret vote for ballot for guaranteeing the unbound expresssion of the will of the electors.
Court said that no distinction can be drawn between the voter for the right of secrecy, regardless of the fact voter decides to cast vote or or to not cast vote in the fray.
With this it was fully ensured that voter’s may or may not cast vote with maintenance of their secrecy and purity but without the fear of being victimized if his vote is disclosed.
NOTA – As A Provision
NOTA is basically an option which gives voters a right to reject all the candidates. It is present at the bottom of the Electronic voting machines (EVMs) after all the contesting candidates and the voter can cast his NOTA vote by pressing it. Provided that democracy is all about choices and furthermore it is a essence of democracy, NOTA made it easier for voters to have a choice without being victimized.
Earlier, if the voter wants to cast a negative vote then he had to inform the presiding officer which surely was infringment of the Right to secrecy of the voter thus making him stand in a position of being victimized but this does not requires any involvement with any officer on duty and one has to give no information even if he do not want to vote to any of the candidate contesting in the fray.
‘NOTA’ or None of the above came into existence in September, 2013 when the Supreme Court, in the case of PUCL v. Union Of India upheld the right of the voter to reject all candidates contesting elections saying it would help in cleansing the political system of India as it would lead to political parties contesting clean participants in election. So, Supreme Court in its judgement said “We direct the Election Commission to provide necessary provision in the ballot papers/EVMs and another button called ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) may be provided in EVMs so that the voters, who come to the polling booth and decide not to vote for any of the candidates in the fray, are able to exercise their right not to vote while maintaining their right of secrecy”
The NOTA option was first introduced in 2013 assembly election in four states Chhattisgarh , Mizoram , Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and one Union Territory, i.e., Delhi.
Positive Aspects Of NOTA
Addition of NOTA option on EVMs has helped in several ways in the election process such as by giving voters their freedom of expression, preserving their Right to Secrecy and with all this making a systematic change in elections.
NOTA as a tool for protest:
NOTA preserves freedom of Expression by allowing voters to express dissent or their right to reject all the contesting candidates. This would lead to potentially improve the voter turnout by providing an option to disapprove all the candidates, by this it can encourage more participation in the democratic process i.e. Elections. It also prevents bogus voting as a result of higher voter turnout.
Someone would go for NOTA option only if the ruling party has not done enough work in their previous election term and the opposition party is very weak. For e.g. we can take Gujarat legislative assembly election 2017, there seemed to be an incumbency on the part of Bharata Janata Party(BJP) rule in the state due to several factors and people wanted to change the ruling party but the opposition was Indian National Congress (INC) which has lost its significance in Gujratover the years due to Modi government .
So, it would have been a different scenario if voters chose NOTA option, there was a possibility that BJP would not have won the election in the first place or won it with a very little margin, helping them realise that the party has not done enough and thus encouraging them to work hard for the next election.
NOTA as a tool to protect secrecy:
NOTA also preserves voters Right to secrecy because before NOTA if a voter wants to reject all the candidates i.e. give a blank vote then according to rule 49-O of Conduct of Election Laws, 1961, voter had to sign a form with their name on it which would lead to violation of their right to secrecy and the blank voters could be traced and punished for their choice but with this there was no disclosure of any names to anyone helping voter to have his secrecy.
NOTA as a tool for change in politics :
After, NOTA there is a possibility that most of the candidates selected are honest because after NOTA the contestants representing the parties are also with good and clear public image as the political parties have fear that voters can give votes to the NOTA option.
By utilizing this power, electorates can send a clear signal to the political parties that some people are not happy regarding the candidates that are contesting in the election and thus creating extreme pressure on the parties to only field those candidates who are more acceptable to the electorates. This empowerment of the voters may also result to more systematic change in the election process.
Although NOTA to a certain extent has fulfilled its major cause, that is, to protect the voters of the country from being victimized by safeguarding their Right to secrecy but no rule or provision comes without flaws.
- No significant increase in participation:
NOTA seems to fail in increasing the participation of voters in the elections, which signifies the strength of democracy as the court implied that turning up to booths and voting on NOTA is far better that not voting at all.
- Not equal to Right to Reject:
The observation behind it was to give the voters a feeling of empowerment. But the meaning of the order has not been taken correctly. It in no way provides a Right to Reject. The Supreme Court just assserted that as people have right to show the liking for a candidate to be elected, in the same way they should have a choice for the Negative voting.
Yet, as former CEC, S.Y. Qureshi, points out by giving a example that even if 99 votes out of 100 total votes goes to NOTA still the candidate who has got that 1 vote will be treated as a winner, as he has got the highest number of valid votes. The rest of votes given to the NOTA are considered to be invalid or as no vote.
- Only a moral obligation to parties:
It only bounds the political parties to nominate a better and more ethical and moral valued candidate as larger number of votes going to NOTA shows a kind of disafffection towards the candidates that are present in the fray. But in general, it only puts a moral pressure on the parties rather forcing them by rules and regulations which in some ways is a bit more optimistic and thus political parties refuse to stop the candidates from contesting in the election making NOTA a tool of participation for voters and nothing more than that.
S.Y. Qureshi along with Mr. Rajeev Dhawan and Subhash Kashyap, Former Secretery General of Lok Sabha also believed that Supreme Court is in some way too optimistic in thinking that NOTA will by-product in a cleaner politics. While K.K. Venugopal and Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) forced to elongate it a Right To reject.
NOTA by far can be said said as toothless tiger as it does not result in re-election or disqualification of the candidates that once have got less vote than NOTA itself and thus, in no way it influences the result of elections. It is not a direct substitute to a bad governance but only is a motivation to change and improvement. Candidates also began to campaign against NOTA and said it be a wastage of vote and thus influencing the voters against it who may not have a full knowledge about the provisions.
Conclusion And Suggestions:
With this, a conlusion can be drawn that a country like India having vibrant democracy, adding NOTA button in the EVM will certainly increase the political participation but only if, it is provided with more power and is implemented in better way. In order to further strengthen the NOTA, there are several suggestions.
There should be addition of rules that votes casted to NOTA should also be counted and if in an election where NOTA has got the most number of votes, none of the contestants should be elected and all the candidate contesting in that particular election would be barred from contesting again as they have already been opposed by voters.
Other than that, political parties should also think about the fact that they should only field such contestants in the election who have a certain qualification, experience in public service rather that by seeing his ability to spend money or to which caste or religion he belongs.
Also door to door campaigning should be stopped as it can help in manipulation of voters and mal-practice and corruption. Above all there is dire need of awareness programs to make voters more cognizant of the concepts of NOTA as one can only take a decision about certain things when he is fully aware of its repercussions and keeping in mind the fact voters are backbone of a democracy in a country.
*Raj Mishra, Maharashtra National Law University, Nagpur
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