Compulsory voting bad in principle

The Gujarat government’s law making voting compulsory for all citizens in local body elections is bad in principle and practice. The recently enacted legislation seeks to penalise voters who fail to exercise their franchise. The element of coercion which it introduces into the act of voting is against the spirit of democracy. The right to vote gives the citizen the right to exercise his choice his way, including the freedom not to vote.

Court judgments have clarified that the right is a part of the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. It is for the voter to decide how that freedom is to be exercised. The Representation of the People Act clearly says that electoral right includes the “right to refrain from voting at an election’’. So, the legal and constitutional validity of the law is in serious doubt. Democracy by diktat is a contradiction. It cannot be strengthened by compulsion and coercion.

No major democracy in the world has made voting compulsory at any level. The voting behaviour of citizens is complex, and many factors decide it. They may be political, social, personal, local or others and the voters take their decisions on the basis of some or even just one of them. Their choice, based on these perceptions, is part of the legitimate democratic process. The law is also extremely difficult to implement. There are large migrant populations within a state and across the country, like workers, officials, students and others. They cannot all be made to return to their constituencies to exercise the vote.

Separatists and extremists of various hues have given calls for boycott of elections. Can governments ensure 100 per cent voting in areas affected by such calls? Electoral rolls are often messy and full of holes. Can voters be penalised for mistakes in them? The voter turnout has steadily increased in the country over the years and so there is no case for the law.

The penalty for not voting has not been specified and it will be prescribed when the rules are framed. But the state cannot criminalise large numbers of voters for their inability or refusal to vote. Even the EC does not approve the idea. Election Commissioner HS Brahma has noted that over eight crore voters have to be punished if even 10 per cent of the voters fail to vote in general elections, in case the idea is taken to the national level.

The Gujarat government had passed the legislation when Modi was chief minister. But the then Governor Kamla Beniwal refused to give assent to it as it is ‘’against the principles of individual liberty’’. It has received the new governor’s assent but is unlikely to stand judicial scrutiny.

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