Negative voting is a right

It has been reported in the press that Election Commission wanted the political parties to agree to make changes in the election law to provide for voters’ right to negative voting, by which he could reject all the candidates in the fray. Not surprisingly all parties unanimously rejected the suggestion.

In my view, reference to the political parties was not necessary. This is because the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, already provide by Rule 41(2) and 49(o), that an elector — even after having gone to the polling booth and having obtained the ballot, and even after his name has been recorded in the electoral register — can decide not to record a vote. If this were to happen, the presiding officer will take the signature of the voter to this effect on a prescribed form. This, actually, is the rub, because it means that the secrecy of voting — which is fundamental to democratic elections is violated at the very threshold.

It has been authoritatively established that absolute secrecy in voting reaches effectively a great number of evils, including violence, intimidation, bribery and corrupt practices, dictation by employers or organisations, the fear of ridicule and dislike, or social or commercial injury — in fact, all coercive and improper influence of every sort depends on a knowledge of the voter’s political action.

In recognition of all this, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 Para 21(3) mandates that suffrage shall be held by secret vote. To similar effect is the mandate of Rule 49 M, which requires the maintenance of secrecy of voting by the elector and Section 128 of 1951 Act which requires maintenance of secrecy of voting by every officer on duty. Thus the substantive right of negative voting exists. To activate it, an elementary change is required — the Election Commission can on its own provide one extra button in the electronic voting machine in addition to the number of contesting candidates. This will enable the voter to exercise his right in secrecy and will also send a message — of the anger of the voter — to the contesting candidates and their political mentors.

At the moment, when voters feel disgusted at the nomination of undesirable candidates, they just sit at home and sulk, but are not able to convey their message of non-cooperation. But in the changed position he will be assured of secrecy and will exercise his right which will send a strong message to the smug political bosses against their manipulation. But this by itself will not be enough. Legislation is required if we are to cry a halt to the politicalisation of criminals and this is where the bonafide of all political parties is at stake. It should be emphasised that our founding fathers and mothers have already given us the right of negative voting. Surely the present generation of politicians owe it to their memory to actualise that right.

Legislation needs to be enacted to provide that if negative votes cast exceed the maximum cast for the highest vote getting candidate, the election will be countermanded and a fresh election ordered. This change will be a warning to the political parties that decision about the choice of candidate is not the sole prerogative of a clique within the party. It must involve the voters at the very stage of selection, because parties will not be able to force on the voters the unpleasant task of having to choose between two evils. The candidate will not be a dumb helpless spectator. A wrong choice will result in fresh elections. Such a provision exists in the US (Massachusetts), Norway, and many other countries.

No doubt, the right of recall is also a valuable mechanism, but that comes into effect only after a candidate having been elected misuses his office. But if at the very outset all the candidates are ones which the constituency deems undesirable, should not the sovereignty of voters — the core of a democratic election — require a mechanism to throw those candidates out at the very threshold. The mechanism of negative voting, thus, serves a very fundamental and essential part of a vibrant democracy.

I firmly hope that the new Parliament would be compelled by public opinion to pass such a law so that it becomes operational for future assembly elections where the reality of the politicalisation of criminals has already reached unacceptable levels and is endangering free elections, which is one of the basic features of our Constitution.