Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Migrant Votes

The Election Commission of India says it has developed a prototype for a Multi-Constituency Remote Electronic Voting Machine which would enable remote voting by migrant voters. The move is long overdue.

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The Election Commission of India (ECI) has invited all national and state political parties on January 16 to demonstrate the functioning of the prototype for a Multi-Constituency Remote Electronic Voting Machine for migrant voters. The Technical Expert Committee members will also be present. The ECI has also solicited written views from recognised political parties on various issues related to the move, including changes required in legislation, changes needed in administrative procedures and voting method/RVM /technology.

Based on the feedback received from various stakeholders and demonstration of the prototype, the ECI will carry forward the process of implementing remote voting methods. The ECI said that in association with a public sector undertaking, it was now ready to pilot a Multi-Constituency Remote Electronic Voting Machine for facilitating participation of domestic migrants from their remote locations in voting for their home constituencies. This modified form of EVM can handle up to 72 multiple constituencies from a single remote polling booth.

The ECI further said that “the initiative, if implemented, can lead to a social transformation for the migrants and connect with their roots as many times they are reluctant to get themselves enrolled at their place of work for various reasons, such as frequently changing residences, not enough social and emotional connect with the issues of area of migration, unwillingness to get their names deleted in electoral roll of their home/native constituencies as they have permanent residence/property, etc.” 

A concept note has been circulated among political parties highlighting the challenges of defining domestic migrants, implementation of the model code of conduct, ensuring secrecy of voting, facility of polling agents for identification of voters, process and method of remote voting and counting of votes, among other issues.

The ECI stated that migration-based disenfranchisement is not an option in the age of technological advancement. It said that the voter turnout in the 2019 general elections was 67.4% and the ECI is concerned about the issue of over 30 crore electors not exercising their franchise and also differential voter turnout in various states/UTs. 

The ECI in its statement said that it is understood that there are many reasons for a voter not opting to register at a new place of residence, thus missing out on exercising the right to vote. Inability to vote due to internal migration (domestic migrants) is one of the prominent reasons to be addressed to improve voter turnout and ensure participative elections, the ECI said.

Although there is no central database available for migration within the country, the analysis of available data in the public domain points to work, marriage and education-related migration as important components of domestic migration. Migration is predominant among the rural population and approximately 85% of the internal migration is within states.

Soon after assuming office as chief election commissioner, Rajiv Kumar learnt about issues related to domestic migration firsthand from his trek to Dumak village in Chamoli district. Thereafter, he focused his attention on enabling migrant voters to exercise their franchise from their current place of residence. 

“Realising such empowerment would entail a host of legal, statutory, administrative and technological interventions, the ECI team has deliberated at length to find inclusive solutions to facilitate electoral participation of migrants across all socio-economic strata and explored alternative voting methods like two-way physical transit postal ballots, proxy voting, early voting at special Early Voting Centres, one-way or two-way electronic transmission of postal ballots (ETPBS), Internet-based voting system, etc.

“With the objective of finding a technological solution which is credible, accessible and acceptable to all stakeholders, the ECI headed by the chief election commissioner along with Election Commissioners Anup Chandra Pandey and Arun Goel has now explored the option of using a modified version of the time-tested model of M3 EVMs to enable domestic migrants to vote at remote polling stations outside their home constituencies. The migrant voter would thus need not travel back to his/her home district to exercise his/her franchise of voting,” the ECI’s statement said.

The ECI has sent letters to all political parties in which it is stated that India is the world’s largest democracy. The Constitution provides universal adult suffrage to its citizens, as enshrined in Article 326 of the Constitution, irrespective of race, religion, gender and economic status. A good measure of an established democracy, inter alia, is registration of all eligible citizens as electors and maximum participation of electors in voting.

Despite the increase in electoral registration and voters, the concern of stagnant participation is manifest. In effect, one third of the voters do not vote. In other words, approximately one out of every three voters do not participate in the direct electoral process of exercising his or her vote. This translates to a high figure of about 30 crore voters. 

The ECI says it is committed to its goal of “no voter to be left behind”. For enhancing voter facilitation, the ECI has been taking various measures like providing assured minimum facilities at polling stations, extending voter awareness through various flagship SVEEP activities, providing postal ballots to various categories of voters, including service voters, providing home voting facilities for senior citizens (80+ years of age) and persons with disabilities—all aimed at improving voter participation during elections. The ECI is also focussing on youth, urban apathy and geographical constraints.

The Commission has always been concerned about the issue of about 30 crore electors not exercising their franchise and differential voter turnout in different states/ UTs. It understands that there are multifarious reasons for a voter not exercising franchise. Among the many reasons like urban apathy and youth apathy, the inability to vote due to internal migration (domestic migrants) is also a prominent reason contributing to low voter turnout. 

It is pertinent to mention that there are enough provisions in electoral laws to let people vote at their place of “ordinary residence” by way of enrolling themselves in the electoral rolls of their place of ordinary residence, with protection from deregistration due to “temporary absence”. The migrants, however, are generally reluctant to get themselves enrolled at their place of work for various reasons, including unwillingness to get their names deleted in the electoral rolls of their home/native constituencies where they have permanent residences. The legal construct of any constituency is territorial and based on the place of ordinary residency. 

The letter from the ECI also mentioned that the Supreme Court’s order in Dr Shamsheer VP versus Union of India on the matter of alleged denial of voting opportunities to domestic migrants had prompted the poll body to explore options of remote voting for domestic migrants.

Former Chief Election Commissioner Dr SY Quraishi said that the remote electronic voting system of the ECI is a great initiative and the decision to invite political parties to demonstrate a prototype of the remote electronic voting machine is a very good step. He also said that it is a great initiative because the issue of migrant voters was pending for a long time and observed that if the ECI finds an electronic solution, it will be a very good achievement. He added that the most important thing is that the ECI is completing the process in a democratic way. 

—By Adarsh Kumar and India Legal Bureau

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