Explained: Why division of votes is key to healthy parliamentary system

Published: June 28, 2019 12:10:02 PM

Division as the default method of voting will not only catalyze more debates within political parties but will also encourage MPs to actively engage in lawmaking in Parliament.

division of votesDivisions also provide insights into the participation of MPs in the legislative process. When a Bill is passed by a voice vote there is no record of how many MPs were present in the House during the passage of a law.

By Chakshu Roy

Last Friday, the government introduced the Triple Talaq Bill in the Lok Sabha. During its introduction, Member of Parliament Asaduddin Owaisi demanded a division on the motion of introduction of the Bill. A motion is a binary question raised in Parliament for a decision to be taken by MPs. A division is a type of voting which records how each MP voted on a motion. The question that the Minister for Law and Justice raised was whether the Triple Talaq Bill could be introduced. 185 MPs voted to support the introduction of the Bill and 74 voted against it. Since the majority vote was in favour, the Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha.

Considering the volume of decisions taken by Parliament divisions or recorded voting is infrequent in the two houses. For example, between 2004 and 2009, only 20 divisions were called for in Lok Sabha. The preferred method for making decisions in Parliament is through a voice vote. In this method, MPs orally convey their agreement or disagreement to a motion. It clubs the individual decisions of MPs in one loud chorus of “Ayes” or “Noes”. Being an oral vote, it does not put on parliamentary record the stand of political parties and individual MPs on contentious political issues.

Division, on the other hand, records how each MP voted on a particular motion. For example, during the passage of the Land Acquisition Act in 2013, Left party MPs moved amendments to the government’s bill and asked for a division on their amendments. Parliamentary record indicates that they lost the vote and the Bill was passed without incorporating their amendments. The same record also reflects for posterity their stand on the contentious issues in the Bill. Often, political parties have defined positions only on contentions Bills. Bills of a technical nature might not be discussed in detail within the political party. Since division gives MPs three choices to vote on an issue (agree, disagree or abstain), it forces political parties to discuss all Bills internally and then take a public stand on it. Political parties also change their stand on issues depending on whether they are in power or not. Data on divisions keeps them accountable on their shifting stands.

Divisions also provide insights into the participation of MPs in the legislative process. When a Bill is passed by a voice vote there is no record of how many MPs were present in the House during the passage of a law. For example, there are currently 542 MPs in the 17th Lok Sabha. However, division data on the Triple Talaq Bill indicates that less than half of them were in the House to take part in the voting on the Bill. Many of the missing MPs were from the treasury benches as 185 votes were cast in favour of introduction of the Bill as against the ruling party’s strength of 303 in Lok Sabha. Publicly available information about how MPs voted in Parliament incentivises them to participate in legislative proceedings. In many democracies, voting records of MPs are raised in public discussion to analyse their work as a legislator. When Barack Obama was running for his first term as President, the American media pointed out that during his four years as a senator from Illinois, he had missed 24% of his votes. They also highlighted that during his time in the Senate, the median for missed votes was 2%.

In spite of the advantages offered by division, it is not the default method of voting in Parliament. Division is only mandated for a set of motions which require a special majority of the house to be passed. For example, constitutional amendment bills have to be passed by a majority of the total membership of that House and by a majority of not less than two-thirds of the members of the House “present and voting”. To ensure that this condition is fulfilled, a division is called for. On other occasions, individual MPs have to ask for a division. During the term of the last Lok Sabha (2014-19), voting by division was held only on 108 occasions. Only half of these were asked for by MPs, the other half related to constitutional amendment bills.

Our system is not designed to encourage MPs to express their opinion on issues in Parliament. The anti-defection law disenfranchises them of their voting rights and gives political party the tool to bypass intra-party deliberation on issues. Making division/recorded voting as the default method of voting will not only catalyze more debates within political parties but will also encourage MPs to actively engage in lawmaking in Parliament.

Author is head of outreach at PRS Legislative.

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