Time for mail-in ballot?
While mail-in ballot does represent an opportunity for safe and systematic voting in India during the COVID times, its associated risks and drawbacks must be addressed
The forthcoming Assembly Election in Bihar in the environment of the Coronavirus pandemic and the controversy on the mail-in ballot in US Presidential Election in the coming fall, have generated lots of curiosity amongst many in India on electoral reforms through postal ballots. Though Louis DeJoy, the Postmaster General who has recently taken over the charge of the United States Postal Service (USPS) has promised that relaxed delivery norms of mails would not be applicable for a mail-in ballot, his assurance did not generate sufficient confidence amongst the voters, particularly amongst the sympathisers of the Democrats considering the very fact that PMG is a well-known donor of Republican Party and was a former fundraiser on their side. Unlike in India, PMG is not a career civil servant in the US and is appointed by the Board of Governors of USPS. Whereas in the background of the pandemic, nearly 25 per cent of the US voters would like to exercise their votes through postal ballots, President Donald Trump claims that voting-by-mail would invite wide scale fraud. Though the President has never explained the reasons behind his claim, he has refused to concede the USD 25 billion bailout proposal to help the USPS to come out of its financial crisis whose revenue was badly hit by the pandemic. To reduce the cost of operation, the USPS under the leadership of DeJoy has relaxed the transit norms for delivery of mails. This has given rise to wide scale apprehension amongst the voters that their mail-in ballot may not reach the destination before the scheduled day of counting.
In India too, the system of exercising votes by postal ballot is an age-old practice. This system was hitherto earmarked only for three categories of government employees: those who were in Armed Forces or in the Central Police Forces, those in Indian Embassies and the employees of Central and state governments who were engaged in conducting the election process elsewhere. In the Lok Sabha election of 2019, little more than 18 lakh employees had applied to exercise their vote through the postal ballot system and about 60 per cent of them had cast their votes. This number is, however, quite insignificant as compared to the US Presidential election where the share of voters casting ballots by mail steadily increased from 7.8 per cent in 1996 to 20.9 per cent in 2016. In Australia in the federal election of 2016, 8.5 per cent of the total voters opted for postal ballots. In Austria in 2017, 15 per cent of all votes cast were through the postal channel.
In India, not much thought went into the process as to how the system could be broadened for wider benefits — for millions of absentee voters, for infirm, old or differently-abled voters. An eligible voter, to avail the facility, is required to apply to the returning officer of the constituency where he or she is registered in a prescribed form. The printed ballot will then be sent to the voter by post like a letter mail. Once the ballot is received, the voter will mark his choice and will send the ballot back to the returning officer by post. The Election Commission pays for all the expenses including the postage for transmission of the ballot on either side.
The sanctity of the postal voting system depended crucially on the delivery of the blank ballot to the right voter and delivery of the cast-ballot in its return journey to the returning officer well on time, usually, one hour before the counting begins. A few years back, Election Commission of India introduced the concept of electronic transmission of postal ballots (ETPB). This took away the headache of the post office so far as the delivery of the ballot to the voter is concerned. However, even in the new system, the voter is required to send the ballot to the returning officer by speed post once the vote is cast. The expenses of speed post were borne by the Commission. The new system envisages that the voter has access to a computer and a printer for downloading and printing of the blank ballot. This was, however, of no problem for the government employees on duty. After successful implementation of the ETBP system, the Election Commission was exploring the possibility of replicating a similar system for other categories of voters, like those who are above 80 years of age. A pilot was undertaken successfully in seven constituencies in the Jharkhand Assembly Election a few months back. Given the pandemic situation, the Commission explored extending the postal ballot system to those who are above 65 and those who are suffering in COVID. Different political parties have responded differently to the proposal of the Commission. Though the Commission has recently made it clear that because of logistical reasons, they are not going to extend the mails-in ballot for those who are 65 and above in the Bihar Election, the Commission's exploration of wider use of voting-by-mail generated lots of hopes as to electoral process becoming more inclusive in near future.
The initiative of the Commission is no doubt a novel one. It would have been still better if the migrant labourers and other absentee voters were also brought under the proposed system. It is, however, still not clear whether conveyance of ballot will be through ETPB or by speed post. ETPB may be a more effective system but how do we ensure access to a computer and a printer by all such voters? Perhaps to start with, the Commission may consider a hybrid system where blank ballots will be transmitted electronically only to those who are comfortable with the gadgets and to others it may be sent by speed post. The voter may be given the option to choose. The post office needs to be extra cautious in ensuring accurate delivery of blank ballots as in the competitive political environment we cannot rule out the possibility of such ballots getting snatched by the cadres of local political parties from the unarmed postmen while they are out for delivery. Postmen are subject to this sort of harassment even in the organisational election of clubs and societies where rival groups quite often fight bitterly with each other.
We also need to keep in mind the security of the voter who is old or infirm. The voter should not be bullied by the followers of the rival political inclinations of the locality. Whereas the pandemic has brought some serious thinking as to the use of the age-old postal ballot for long due electoral reforms, we need to be cautious in its implementation.
The writer is a former civil servant. Views expressed are personal