Insights into Editorial: NOTA and the Indian voter
The Supreme Court, in September 2013, upheld the right of voters to reject all candidates contesting the elections, saying it would go a long way in cleansing the political system of the country. The apex court directed the Election Commission to have an option of ‘None Of The Above’ (NOTA) on the electronic voting machines (EVMs) and ballot papers in a major electoral reform.
Thus, India became the 14th country to institute negative voting. However, NOTA in India does not provide for a ‘right to reject’. The candidate with the maximum votes wins the election irrespective of the number of NOTA votes polled.
How is a NOTA vote cast?
The EVMs have the NOTA option at the end of the candidates’ list. Earlier, in order to cast a negative ballot, a voter had to inform the presiding officer at the polling booth. A NOTA vote doesn’t require the involvement of the presiding officer.
There was a similar provision before NOTA. What was it?
Before the NOTA option came in existence, people casting negative votes were required to enter their names in a register and cast their vote on a separate paper ballot. Under Section 49 (O) of the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, a voter could enter his electoral serial number in Form 17A and cast a negative vote. The presiding officer would then put a remark in the form and get it signed by the voter. This was done to prevent fraud or misuse of votes. This provision was, however, deemed unconstitutional by the SC as it did not protect the identity of the voter.
NOTA polling figures are still small. On an average, the maximum NOTA vote share has not crossed 2.02% of the total votes polled in any election cycle. The perceived cynicism of Indian voters against the political class thus seems exaggerated. However, it is worthwhile to look at the patterns of NOTA voting to find out how the voters have used this option of negative voting.
- NOTA button saw its debut in the 2013 Assembly elections held in four States — Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and the former Union Territory, Delhi. In these States and Delhi, NOTA constituted 1.85% of the total votes polled. The average NOTA vote share dropped to 0.95% in the 2014 Assembly elections held in eight States — Haryana, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir and Maharashtra.
- It increased to 2.02% in the 2015 Assembly elections held in Delhi and Bihar. While Delhi polled a mere 0.40%, Bihar saw 2.49% of NOTA votes, which remains the highest NOTA votes polled so far in any State in Assembly elections.
- In the 2016 Assembly elections held in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala, Puducherry and Tamil Nadu, NOTA vote share dropped again to 1.6%.
- In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, NOTA constituted 1.1% of the total votes. Across the elections, the number of NOTA votes polled was larger than the winning margin in 261 Assembly constituencies which went to the polls since 2013, and in 24 constituencies in the Lok Sabha elections.
- One can argue that in these constituencies the NOTA votes did make a difference to the election results assuming that in the absence of this option a majority of NOTA voters would have preferred one or the other candidate in the fray.
What can we infer from the above data?
- Reserved constituencies have seen a relatively larger number of NOTA votes, which points to the continued social prejudice against political reservation for SC/STs.
- Constituencies affected by left-wing extremism have also recorded higher NOTA performance and here probably it served as an instrument of protest against the State itself. It is important to note that these voters have used the democratic means of NOTA to express their resentment rather than boycotting the polls outright.
- NOTA figures are comparatively higher in those constituencies which have seen a direct contest between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. One may read into this some indication of the people’s disenchantment with two mainstream political parties and yearning for alternatives.
- Overall, Indian voters seem to be using NOTA not just to show their disapproval of the candidates in the fray but to express their protest against many things they perceive wrong in the political system.
Why have NOTA if there’s ‘no electoral value’?
NOTA gives people dissatisfied with contesting candidates an opportunity to express their disapproval. This, in turn, increases the chances of more people turning up to cast their votes, even if they do not support any candidate, and decreases the count of bogus votes. Also, the Supreme Court has observed that negative voting could bring about “a systemic change in polls and political parties will be forced to project clean candidates”.
Why NOTA is good?
- NOTA option will force the political parties to select the honest candidates, i.e with no criminal records.
- NOTA ensures people’s ‘right to freedom of speech and expression’.
- The disadvantage of 49-O will be overcome with the implementation of NOTA.
- This will increase the polling percentage.
The early trends of NOTA need to be explored further with more elaborate statistical and ethnographic analysis. So far, a small number of Indian voters have come to see NOTA as an instrument of protest. This electoral option will become a meaningful means of negative voting only if it becomes a ‘right to reject’ rather than being a symbolic instrument to express resentment as it is now. A PIL has already been filed in Madras High Court seeking the full right to reject in place of NOTA.