Major General B C Khanduri-led Standing Committee on Defence, in its 23rd report on `Proxy and Postal Voting by Defence Services Personnel in General Elections” presented during the Winter Session of Parliament has made a strong pitch for e-postal ballot to cut down on delays and enable an estimated three million service personnel and their family members to exercise their democratic right to cast their votes.
The Committee expressed concern that defence services personnel were unable to cast their votes mainly due to cumbersome procedure involved in Proxy & Postal voting on account of postal delays. To address their problems in their native place as well as problems related to services and career, the Service Voters are being shuttled by the political representations to and from their native place and at the place of posting. As a result they face lots of hardship.
The Committee was of the opinion that amendments should be made in the electoral laws to enable Service Voters to cast their vote in elections through e-postal ballot.
In order to deliberate comprehensively for arriving at a consensus and speed up the discussion, the Committee invited representatives of Ministry of Home Affairs and Law and Justice as well as the Election Commission of India along with the representatives of Ministry of Defence at their sittings.
The Committee held seven sittings and vigorously took up various issues related to e-postal ballot. The Committee, inter alia, were of the view that Election Commission needs to take into consideration the difficulties faced by Service Voters in the matter of exercising their franchise. The Committee were briefed that the technical team of the Election Commission has developed a system whereby blank postal ballot could be electronically transmitted to the Service Voter, namely, e-postal ballot system. Voters entitled to postal ballot such as Service Voters, can download and take a print out of the postal ballot at the Unit. This would cut short the delay experienced in the present system in two-way transmission of ballot paper by the postal services. Two-way electronic transmission has not been recommended by the Election Commission on account of reasons of security and secrecy.
It made various important suggestions towards hastening the process and making necessary amendments in this regard so that the electoral reform does not remain a noble thought on paper but becomes a tangible reality at the earliest. In this connection, the Committee expressed satisfaction that the Government has issued Gazette Notification on 21st October, 2016 amending Rule 23 of the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961 thereby fulfilling a long standing demand for allowing the Service Voters to have their ballot papers transmitted through electronic means instead of regular post. The E-Postal balloting was implemented in the bye-election held in Nellithope Assembly (Puducherry) in November, marking a major breakthrough.
The Armed Forces and Para Military Forces personnel enrolled as electors in their native place have the option of appointing a Proxy of their choice for voting on their behalf. In such cases, the Proxy will vote at the local polling station. Others, who do not want to vote through Proxy, will be sent a Postal Ballot by the Returning Officer of the constituency.
The Committee have noted that the facility of appointing a Proxy for exercising the franchise on behalf of the Defence Personnel (Service Voters belonging to Armed Forces and Para Military Forces) was introduced by way of amending of Section 60 of the Representation of People Act 1951, through the Election Laws and Other Related Laws (Amendment) Act, 2003. To be appointed as Proxy, a person has to be ordinarily resident in the constituency concerned and of not less than 18 years of age. While it is not necessary that the Proxy is also registered as an elector in the roll, at the same time, he must not be disqualified to be registered.
The Committee have further noted that the process of appointing a Proxy involves, inter-alia, filling an application in the statutorily prescribed format (Form 13F), which is appended to the 1961 Rules. Both the Service Voter appointing the Proxy and the Proxy so appointed have to put their signatures on the Form and have it attested by the Commanding Officer/Notary public or First Class Magistrate. As per the procedure laid down, the Service Voter has to get his signature attested by the Commanding Officer of the Unit and send it to the Proxy being nominated by him. The Proxy, on receipt of the form, can sign and get the attestation from a Notary/First Class Magistrate. It is only after completing the process, as prescribed under the rules, that Form 13F can be delivered to the Returning Officer concerned.
The Committee have found that the procedure involved in voting through Proxy could be daunting, both for the Service Voter appointing the Proxy as well as the Proxy. The process could also be taxing for the Returning Officer (RO) as he is required to maintain a record of the Service Voters who have appointed Proxies. The Proxies would vote on behalf of the Service Voter as any other general voter in the polling station covering the place of residence of the Service Voter concerned. The RO is required to send a polling station wise list of Proxies appointed by Service Voters, based on which, the Presiding Officer will permit the Proxy to cast the vote.
As evident from the depositions made, the representatives of the Ministry of Defence and the Services too find the process of voting through Proxy cumbersome. The process involves adhering to a variety of formalities which include, verifying signatures of the individual and the Proxy through First Class Magistrate, Notary and the Commanding Officer of the Unit concerned. The elaborate procedures, coupled with inherent issues relating to Ã¢ÂÂconfidentiality of the choice of the Service VoterÃ¢ÂÂ discourage the individual voters from casting their vote through Proxy. Therefore, the process is not popular among the Service voters.
The Committee have noted that the intention behind introducing the facility of Proxy Voting was to help the Service Personnel in casting their vote.
Nevertheless, considering the stringent procedure the Serving Armed Forces Personnel have to follow in appointing the Proxy; the processes the Proxy has to, in turn, follow for voting; as well as the intrinsic nature of Proxy Voting – which can compromise aspects of confidentiality – the Committee are of the view that serious efforts need to be made towards developing an alternative to the system of Proxy Voting. A better method for enabling the Service Personnel to exercise their franchise is a necessity.
The Committee understood that conducting the General Elections is an onerous task for the Election Commission of India. To fulfil the task, manpower is acquired from different Central and State Government departments. The manpower so acquired is also to be trained for ensuring smooth conduct of elections. The uniformed Service Personnel being a disciplined lot, the Committee feel that the Services of these personnel can be utilised to conduct the elections, in a fair and transparent manner for Service Voters, particularly in the difficult and forward areas.
India has made significant strides in terms of technological advancement. The Committee have felt that developing and implementing a foolproof and reliable system to help Service Voters in exercising their franchise should be an easy, and definitely not a difficult task.
The Committee have found it surprising that the Ministry of Defence and Election Commission of India have not undertaken any exercise to learn about the practices prevalent in developed nations in particular, for enabling the soldiers, who are not at their usual place of residence, to exercise their franchise.
The Committee have desired that the Election Commission of India and the Ministry of Defence together should undertake a study of the electoral practices prevalent in countries where Ã¢ÂÂinternet votingÃ¢ÂÂ or chip based Ã¢ÂÂidentity card voting systemÃ¢ÂÂ exists viz.,Australia, Brazil, Canada, Estonia, France, Netherlands, UK, USA, Switzerland, Venezuela, etc., The best practices followed in this regard need to be identified and developed to suit the requirements of Indian election process.