Over the last week, many of us have been inundated with emails encouraging us to “vote for nobody”, claiming, among other things, that this is a way of driving out electoral candidates. As our member, and Senior Advocate, Chander Uday Singh points out, this is a complete myth. Many thanks to Chander for this timely advice. A postscript has been contributed by Mr Parag Kabadi, of Doijode Associates. There is also a link to a fairly good article on Wikipedia, to the same effect. Please circulate and forward this widely.
“Vote for Nobody”: A Myth
by Chander Uday Singh
Senior Advocate, Bombay High Court
This chain mail (one version is at the foot of this message) has been doing the rounds for some time now, but is based on a complete misunderstanding of the statutory provisions.
Neither the Consitution of India nor the Representation of the People Act, 1950 contain any provision to suggest that failure or refusal to vote can have any bearing on the outcome of an election at which other people have duly voted for the candidate of their choice. The provision in question, “49-O”, is actually a mere Rule which has been enacted in order to deal with a peculiarity of the electronic voting system which India pioneered.
“The Conduct of Election Rules, 1961” have been framed under the Representation of the People Act, 1950, and make detailed provisions for everything from filing of nomination papers to casting of votes, counting of votes, and the like. Separate provisions are made for direct elections such as to Parliament and State Assemblies, and for indirect voting such as in electoral colleges. Part IV of the Rules covers “Voting in Parliamentary and Assembly Constituencies”, while Part V covers “Counting of Votes in Parliamentary and Assembly Constituencies”. Part IV has two Chapters, with Chapter I (Rules 28 to 48) applying to “Voting by Ballot”, and Chapter II (Rules 49-A to 49-X), which was added in 1992 to deal with the new phenomenon of electronic voting, applying to “Voting by Electronic Voting Machines”.
Rule 49-O, which is part of Chapter II, has been introduced in order to account for all electors who have attended and signed into the polling station. In the case of voting by ballot, the actual number of ballot papers issued are required to be tallied with the votes cast in order to avoid any malpractice, and this account includes ballot papers which have been properly marked, ballot papers which have been accidentally torn/defaced, ballot papers which are seized from electors who refuse or fail to put them into the ballot boxes, and so on. Since ballot papers are physically verifiable and can be counted (whether from the ballot boxes or from sealed envelopes containing defaced/torn/misused ballot papers), there was no need prior to 1992 to have any special Rule to obtain the signature of an elector who attended the polling process but refused or failed to cast her/his vote.
However, when voting is done by electronic voting machines, there is no physical manifestation of the vote. Hence, all accounting has to be done by verification of the registers which are signed by the electors before going behind the screen and punching a button on the voting machine. There being no such thing as a blank or defaced or torn ballot, it became necessary to provide that if an elector, after coming to the polling station and signing in, refuses or declines to cast her/his vote, then a remark has to be made in the register and the signature/thumb impression of the elector has to be obtained against such remark. This remark/entry is then relied upon while counting votes under Rule 66-A, which is a special Rule for counting of votes cast in electronic voting machines, since the machine only records the votes actually cast, and has no means of knowing how many people signed in but failed/refused to cast their votes.
Rule 66-A read with Form 17-C make it clear that the purpose of Rule 49-O is only to ensure that electors who fail to vote ater signing into the pollking station have done so of their own accord and not due to any force or coercion. Form 17-A is the form in which the polling booth register is to be maintained, which is signed by all electors when they enter the polling booth and are identified against the list of valid voters at that booth. Form 17-C records the final count of votes as per Rule 66-A, and this has to be signed by the election agents of all the candidates as it reflects the final result of the tally. Column 6 of Form 17-C requires that the number of electors who actually cast their votes as per the voting machine, be added to the number of those who declined/refused to vote, i.e. those in respect of whom a remark is entered against their names in the voting register (Form 17-A) under Rule 49-O, and that the total of these two figures should tally with the total who signed the voter’s register. In case of any discrepancy in this total, the polling agents have to explain the discrepancy in Form 17-C. This is nothing but an accounting procedure devised in order to ensure that there is neither any bogus voting, nor any force used to prevent valid electors from casting their votes.
Importantly, there is nothing whatsoever in the Act or Rules to suggest that if electors either individually or collectively decline to cast their votes and get this fact recorded under Rule 49-O, then this would have any effect whatsoever on the election. Elections are won (or lost) on the basis of votes cast in favour of different candidates, and not on abstentions. The Greek definition of “idiot” remains as valid as ever, and Rule 49-O has done nothing to elevate a person who refuses to vote out of that category.
Parag Kabadi adds:
Although Rule 49 O provides that an elector may refuse to vote after he has been identified and necessary entries made in the Register of Electors and the marked copy of the electoral roll, the secrecy of voting is not protected inasmuch as the polling officials and the polling agents in the polling station get to know about the decision of such a voter.
The Election Commission has therefore recommended that the law should be amended to provide that in the ballot paper and the particulars on the ballot unit, in the column relating to names of candidates, after the entry relating to the last candidate, there should be a column, “None of the above”, to enable a voter to reject all the candidates, if he chooses so.
Such a proposal was earlier made by the Election Commission in December, 2001 and reiterated in July, 2004 (vide letter dated 10.12.2001). Text of the recommendations is available here.
Interestingly, nothing is provided in the Election Commission’s recommendations, regarding re-election or invalidation of the current candidates. If such a consequence is really provided it will be great, until then, as Chander indicated, don’t be an “idiot””!
See also: Wikipedia on Rule 49-O