Tuesday morning I woke up to the shocking news of The Indian Express that the Electoral Commission had signed memorandums of understanding with more than 1,000 business houses pledging to monitor “electoral participation of their workforceand post those who do not vote on their websites and bulletin boards.
To make matters worse, the Chief Electoral Officer of Gujarat has said that employees of state public sector units and ministries who do not vote will also be tracked. The report also mentioned that during a recent visit to Gujarat, the CEC itself had said that although the commission could not impose compulsory voting, it “wanted to identify workers in large industries who do not vote despite the holidays “.
These shocking developments once again raise serious issues about voter rights, compulsory voting, the secrecy of the vote, and debates around privacy and coercion. Any coercion – especially coercion of the type proposed by the EC in this case – betrays an authoritarian approach that is not only undemocratic, but directly violates the Constitution and laws of the land.
The Supreme Court, in PUCL vs Union of India, 2013, (popularly known as the NOTA judgment) ruled that abstention from voting and negative voting are protected as freedom of expression – a fundamental right (article 19). Earlier, in April 2009, the Court took the same view, rejecting a plea to make voting compulsory on the grounds that governments did not represent a majority due to low turnout.
In every election, there will be those who will not vote out of conviction or for ideological reasons. More importantly, there are millions of day laborers, and many homeless and sick. How can those who cannot vote, given their circumstances, be labeled as undemocratic and forced to act under duress? The mandatory voting proposal has been raised for years in response to chronic voter apathy, especially in urban areas. However, persuasion and motivation through education rather than coercion is the answer. The EC has always held and practiced this by implementing its flagship program called SVEEP (Systematic Voter Education for Electoral Participation) since 2010.
It is important to consider all legal and constitutional provisions that this action would violate. Firstly, section 79 D of the Representation of the People Act 1951 defines ‘electoral right’ as the right of a person to … vote or abstain from voting at an election”. The same provision exists in the Indian Penal Code, see Section 171A(b).
The law fully authorizes, but does not force, citizens to vote. Section 135B of the Representation of the People Act 1951 grants paid leave to anyone employed in a business, trade, industrial undertaking or any other establishment.
Even a daily worker must be paid for the day. Violation of the law results in a fine for the employer of up to Rs 500. This amount may seem laughable, but remember that it was set more than 25 years ago. The only exception is for essential services. Employers can at best cut wages for those who take time off but don’t vote. This deduction from leave or salary is normal in the operation of companies, but this information should not be displayed on notice boards.
It is important to recall the decisions of the Supreme Court in this matter. In PUCL v Union of India, the Court said: “…a free and fair election is a basic structure of the Constitution and necessarily includes within its ambit the right of an elector to vote without fear of reprisal, duress or coercion. The protection of voter identity and respect for secrecy are therefore integral to free and fair elections and an arbitrary distinction between a voter who votes and a voter who does not vote is contrary to Article 14. Thus , secrecy must be maintained for both categories of voters. people “. (emphasis added) How then can the list of non-voters be displayed on a company’s bulletin board or website? This will clearly be a contempt of court.
The lofty goal of better voter turnout can best be achieved through systematic voter education, amply demonstrated by ICE in elections in every state and union territory since 2010, when a split in the voter education was created. This quickly evolved into his SVEEP program. This has led to all elections since seeing the highest turnouts ever. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the turnout of 67.3% broke all previous records. Many states have achieved a participation rate of nearly 90% and more. The EC’s constant assertion that motivation and facilitation, rather than coercion, are the best ways to resolve the issue, has been clearly substantiated.
The voter education program sought to motivate young people to participate in democracy by registering as voters, voting in every election, and voting ethically, that is, without inducement. He engaged schools and colleges to bring the enrollment service to the door by introducing voter clubs, campus ambassadors and youth icons and placing drop boxes at colleges for new applications. .
Employers were encouraged to create similar facilities in their offices. They are legally required to close their establishments on Election Day, but this is rarely enforced. Instead, employers are being asked to give employees a few hours off to allow them to vote. “To expose and humiliate” non-voters is not an available option, even for the Electoral Commission.
In fact, alarmed by the report by The Indian Express, I took the liberty of contacting Rajiv Kumar, CEC, who clarified to me that the MoUs are only for voter education and facilitation and not to compel them to vote, let alone “name and humiliate”. I think the statements of CEO Gujarat and CEC itself to the media put the spade among the pigeons. The ECI must immediately issue a clarification to nip the turmoil in the bud.
The writer is the former Chief Electoral Commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder – The Making of India’s Great Election