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This is not the first time such a law has been contemplated. In 2009, BJP leader L.K. Advani argued in favour of compulsory voting and subsequently, a member of the Congress party introduced the Compulsory Voting Bill, 2009 in the Lok Sabha. This Bill also intended to increase voter turnout to strengthen the democratic process and provided for monetary fines, imprisonment for two days or forfeiture of ration cards as penalties for eligible voters who fail to participate in an election. In 2005, the Lok Sabha rejected a similar private member's legislation seeking to make voting compulsory. The Supreme Court has also considered this issue. During the general elections last year, it rejected a plea for making voting compulsory for elections to legislative bodies on procedural and practical grounds after taking into account the rising voter turnout in certain states. The diamond jubilee celebration of the Election Commission of India earlier this year also saw the Chief Election Commissioner speak of the impossibility of enforcing such a law.
Internationally, close to 25 countries currently practice some form of compulsory voting. However, a much smaller number, including Australia, Belgium, Greece and Luxembourg, have shown a serious commitment to enforce it strictly. Empirical scholarship has established that compulsory voting legislation enhances voter turnout, which is at least 10 to 15 per cent higher in those countries where voting is compulsory as compared to those which follow the system of voluntary voting. In India, a low level of citizen involvement in elections has been a cause of concern for decades. In the last general elections, the national average turnout was around 59 per cent, very close to the turnout in the 2004 general elections. Gujarat has recorded a significantly lower voter turnout as compared to the national average. If cross-country comparisons are considered, the introduction of such a law in India would increase voter turnout by making abstention costly to voters. Belgium and Austria, for instance, have had an average turnout of over 90 per cent in elections since the introduction of compulsory voting legislation. Italy, where voting used to be mandatory but no longer is, provides an interesting example of the creation of a social norm of voting that has continued after the legal compulsion has ended.
Other than the obvious consequence of increase in voter turnout, the introduction of compulsory voting legislation raises several legal, political and practical questions.
Compulsory voting is often termed as undemocratic because it coerces people who may not want to vote to participate in elections. However, "best practices" in countries that make voting mandatory compel voters to the polling booth but do not force them to vote for a particular candidate. This is where a distinction between compulsory voting and compulsory participation must be appreciated. Compulsory participation or compulsory attendance allows a citizen to vote for one of the candidates, cast a negative vote, leave the ballot blank or even spoil the ballot. Hence, it is not voting which is mandatory but attendance at the polling station. This also gives people an incentive to be more informed about the candidates and their proposed policies and bridges the gap between people and politics.
On the other hand, there are management and enforceability difficulties. Any government seeking to make voting compulsory must make voting easy and accessible. Such laws must accommodate people who cannot be reasonably expected to participate, and elections must be conducted in convenient locations at appropriate times. The Dinesh Goswami Committee on Electoral Reforms considered the idea of compulsory voting in 1990 and rejected it due to "practical difficulties." Almost two decades later, we have still not fully addressed the concerns of inaccurate voter I-cards, incomplete and erroneous electoral lists, and other security concerns. In this context, it would be impossible to enforce a law making voting mandatory.
There are various challenges for the introduction of compulsory voting laws at the national and the state level in India. Critics of compulsory voting will surely bring a challenge based upon the Constitution. If the Gujarat government wants compulsory voting to work, it must first reduce the effort required in voting, tackle the problems of incomplete electoral rolls, and fix inaccurate voter identification methods. Practices such as e-voting, postal voting and giving voters a choice of where to vote must be seriously considered. Compulsory participation laws may help to reduce our democratic deficit. But they will be worthwhile only if we make voting more accessible and less exclusive.
The writer is studying law at NALSAR, Hyderabad
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