With an estimated three million armed services personnel and their family members being unable to vote because of problems with postal and proxy ballots, a parliamentary panel has rapped the government, saying if India can make the Mangalyaan, it can find technology to enable service personnel cast their ballots.
In a report tabled earlier this week, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence headed by Major General B.C. Khanduri (retd) said the Election Commission of India should take “concrete measures” towards resolving the problem by using “advance technology” as a means of ensuring that the proxy votes reach the returning officers in the minimum possible time.
“India has made significant strides in terms of technological advancement. The Mangalyaan reaching the destination in first attempt itself without much money spent on the expedition can be cited as an apt example in this regard. The committee, therefore, has 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 report said.
“The committee finds it surprising that the Ministry of Defence and the 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,” it added.
In response to the committee’s question on difficulties in postal ballot, the Defence Ministry said exercise of franchise through proxy voting is not popular amongst service personnel as it involves completion of additional formalities of verifying signatures of the individual and the proxy through a First Class Magistrate or Notary or the Commanding Officer of the unit concerned.
“These procedures, coupled with inherent issues relating to confidentiality of the choice of the service voter, discourage individuals from casting votes through proxy,” the ministry said.
The report pointed out that Election Commission representatives admitted that the period between dispatch of postal ballots and date of counting — 14 to 17 days — is insufficient.
The panel said it is surprised that details of number of armed forces personnel not having cast their vote in elections and the reason for this has not been maintained by either the poll panel or the forces.
It has recommended that the government study best practices abroad, where “internet voting” by chip-based identity card voting systems exist in countries like Australia, Brazil, Canada, Estonia, France, the Netherlands, the UK, the US, Switzerland and Venezuela.
“The best practices followed in this regard need to be identified and developed to suit requirements of Indian election process,” the panel said.
The report, taking note of present procedures, said that the rules for enrolling armed forces personnel as voters in the place of their posting if it is a peace station state that the individual has to be residing there with family for three years.
The armed forces communicated to the Election Commission in 2013 that personnel should be registered as voters without any conditionality.
The commission, however, contended this may possibly change the demographic character of constituencies.
In 2014, a request was made to make the procedure lenient by extending the definition of family to group residency in the unit and making the minimum period two years instead of three.
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A case is at present being heard in the Supreme Court and the committee asked the ministry to apprise it from time to time of the developments.
On proxy voting, the committee pointed out that the process is cumbersome.
Under laid-down procedure, 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 can then sign and get this attested by a Notary or First Class Magistrate. Only after this can the returning officer be informed and the vote cast.
“The committee find from the information furnished that the procedure involved in voting through proxy can be daunting, both for the service voter appointing the proxy as well as the proxy,” the report said.
It said “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 panel has also pointed out that while the wife of a serviceman is seen as a service voter, it is not the same for the husbands of women personnel. The committee has said that husband of a woman officer staying at the place of posting should also be treated as a service voter.
It also recommend that the Election Commission appoint some service officers as “Honorary Election Commission Officers” and entrust them with the duty of conducting the elections. This step would also facilitate in ensuring maximum participation of service voters in future.