The right to vote is one of the most important tools in keeping the spirit of democracy alive. The right to vote is a key tenet of our democratic system. Ordinary men and women have struggled and died for securing voting rights and to ensure that people’s ability to vote is protected against intimidation and hindrance.
Elections are significant, because the results have a direct impact on our lives, from the prime minister, who makes lifetime appointments, to ministers in parliament and local government bodies, who decide whether or not you get the lights at the intersection near your house.
In 1947, with India gaining independence, it adopted the system of the universal adult franchise taking lessons from the Western Countries. It means that the Indian Constitution guarantees the right to vote to all individuals over the age of 18 who are of sound mind, regardless of their caste, religion, or socioeconomic background. The right to vote is regarded as one of a citizen’s most fundamental and inherent rights. As a result, the Indian constitution grants people specific advantages that safeguard the safety and security of their voting rights and so prevent any abuse of such rights.
There are two types of voting rights: direct and indirect. We can talk about direct voting rights when citizens vote without any middleman for members of a representative body. Indirect voting rights, on the other hand, are when voters simply elect representatives or an electoral college, which subsequently elects members of a representative body.
The right to vote and be elected in genuine, periodic elections is intrinsically linked to several other human rights, the enjoyment of which is crucial to a meaningful electoral process. These prerequisite rights include:
• the right to freedom from discrimination;
• the right to freedom of opinion and expression;
• the right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly; and
• the right to freedom of movement.
In casting votes, voters must be assured of freedom of voting, something especially emphasised by electoral legislation. There should not be any kind of direct/indirect pressure upon the voter to choose their representative; they should have their own free will.
RIGHT TO VOTE UNDER INTERNATIONAL LAW
The right to vote has become a well-accepted part of International law. Significant international treaties and conventions ensure citizens’ right to universal and equal suffrage. Out of 119 electoral democracies surveyed almost 108 guaranteed their citizens the right to elect their political representatives. In addition to the constitutions of many states, many international conventions and declarations provide for the right to vote. Many international conventions and declarations enacted by the United Nations and various regional organisations recognise nations’ affirmative obligations to defend their citizens’ right to vote.
•The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
UDHR, a preeminent global document on Human Rights under its Article 21 lays out that everyone has the right to take part in the governance of his country directly or indirectly through freely chosen representatives. of citizens to participate in governance and enjoy Universal Suffrage:
“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or equivalent free voting procedures.”
The declaration being non-binding, this article has not been accepted as generally enforceable customary international law.
•The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
In contrast to the UDHR, Article 25 of the ICCPR has a binding effect because it has been ratified by a large number of signatories. As per Article 25 of ICCPR, 1966:
“Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:
(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;
(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”
•The European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms
The Convention was established by the members of the Council of Europe in 1950. Article 3 of Protocol 1 (P3-1) of the European Convention states that:
“The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”
The right to vote has been recognised as a fundamental right time and again by international declarations and conventions which acts as an example for other countries to follow.
RIGHT TO VOTE UNDER INDIAN LAW
The right to vote is a well-accepted part of the Indian Legislation. Article 326 of the Constitution of India provides for the Right to Vote to every citizen of the country. Article 326 states that:
“The elections to the House of the People and the Legislative Assembly of every State shall be based on adult suffrage; that is to say every person who is a citizen of India and who is not less than eighteen years of age and is not disqualified on the ground of non-residence, unsoundness of mind, crime or corrupt or illegal practices shall be entitled to be registered as a voter”.
Also, Section 62 of the Representative of the People’s Act, 1951 states that “Every person who is, for the time being, entered in the electoral roll of any constituency shall be entitled to vote in that constituency”.
To put it differently, every citizen of India who is not less than 18 years of age has an inherent right to get himself enrolled in the electoral roll and is empowered to vote in the constituency in which his name is registered irrespective of any sort of discrimination based on caste, creed, religion, sex, etc unless he is not disqualified under the Constitution or any law to which he is subject on the grounds of commission of any crime, unsoundness of mind, non-residence or corrupt or illegal activities, etc.
Prior to this, the age for universal suffrage was 21 years for both men and women. The Sixty-first Amendment of the Constitution of India or the Constitution (Sixty-first) Amendment Act, 1988, reduced the voting age for elections to the Lok Sabha and legislative assemblies of several states from 21 to 18 years. This was met by amending Article 326 of the Constitution dealing with the elections of the same.
The Supreme court has time and again held in many cases the citizens’ right to vote. The Verdict of the Apex Court in People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India reiterated that the voters under the purview of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution have an inherent right to have basic information about electoral candidates. Even though the right to vote is in itself may not be a fundamental right but the expression of opinion through the final act of casting a vote is a part of the fundamental right of speech and expression as guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution. The Supreme Court, in this case, directed the use of NOTA (None of the Above) as an option available to the citizens in the context of direct elections to the Lok Sabha and the representatives of the State Assemblies.
The Supreme Court in its judgement directed the Election Commission of India, to provide necessary provisions in the ballot papers/EVMs and provide another button called NOTA in EVMs so that the voters who are not willing to vote for anyone exercise their right in consonance with their right to secrecy.
The Apex Court struck down the Representation of the People (3rd Amendment) Act, 2002 stating that it was violating the right of voters to know the antecedents of the candidates contesting elections to legislatures under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. The Apex Court reaffirmed its earlier ruling in Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms.
NRIs are citizens of the country who are unable to vote in the country’s elections because they are not present in their place of residence due to employment or other reasons. NRIs were formerly denied the right to vote in the country’s elections.
However, a subsequent modification permitted NRIs to vote in Indian elections even if they had been out of the country for more than six months.
BARRIERS IN EXERCISING THE RIGHT TO VOTE AND WAYS TO REMOVE THEM
There are numerous obstacles to exercising one’s right to vote.
The Constitution of India, 1950, lays down who all can vote for the Lok Sabha Elections and Elections to the State Assemblies. Everyone who is 18 years or above age can exercise their right to vote with few exceptions on the grounds such as commission of any crime, unsoundness of mind, non-residence or corrupt or illegal activities, etc.
•Prisoner’s Right to Vote Hampered:
In India, Prisoners are not entitled to the right to vote which is seen as a gross violation of their fundamental rights, they being the legal citizens of the country like any other, are entitled to those rights in the same capacity.
Many countries around the world such as Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Japan, Norway, Sweden allow their inmates the equal right to vote like other citizens of the country. This limitation on the prisoners and the ones who committed any offence acts as a huge barrier in the exercise of the right to vote.
•Mental Illness and Suffrage:
The lack of voting rights for those suffering from intellectual and psychological disabilities is a particularly pernicious obstacle to the exercise of the right to vote. The term unsoundness of mind specified as an exception under the Representation of People’s Act, 1961 is too vague and undefined. There is a lack of an objective standard which the “competent court” can use to determine what constitutes unsoundness of mind. Even if a person’s impairment does not affect his ability to comprehend a candidate’s position in the elections and make a decision, he can be denied the exercise of his right to vote under this legal framework.
Poverty is yet another barrier to the proper exercise of the right to vote. India has a headcount poverty ratio of 20.8% of the total population, playing yet another vital role in bridging the gap to the actual and free and fair utilisation of the Right to Vote. Many a time, different political leaders take advantage of their helplessness and try to Bribe these poor people by offering them amazing baits as offerings to which they fail to prey.
•Lack of Awareness:
People living in rural areas and those living below poverty lines having no access to proper education are still unaware of their basic fundamental rights which also includes the right to vote. Lack of knowledge acts as a barrier in this instance, the more knowledgeable an individual is the more likely he is to exercise his right to vote as he knows the value of having some influence on the political system by the exercise of his right. The most effective way to change these percentage differences of participation is to encourage people to stay in schools and conduct awareness drives to make people know their rights and duties.
•Undue Influence by Local Leaders:
Many a time local leaders make use of undue influence by way of coercion or other allurements offering them money or liquor to get the innocent and poor voters to vote for them. Though this practice has considerably been stopped in the recent ages, there are still instances of many such cases.
•Poorly Trained Poll Workers:
Poll Workers on duty need to be efficiently trained to follow the proper protocols related to checking IDs and looking into the secrecy of the procedure.
However, poll workers are Ill-equipped to execute their tasks due to a lack of funds and dedication to make voting welcome and convenient. This will further help in the proper realisation of the Right to vote for every citizen.
The right to vote is an inherent and fundamental right ensured to every citizen of the country under the Constitution of India. It is a well recognized right under different International Conventions and Declarations. While there are many barriers to the exercise of the right to vote such as lack of awareness, lack of resources, discrimination against certain groups of people, poverty, etc still India is trying its best climbing the ladder of development.
It is the need of the hour to try our best to eliminate these measures by adopting some of these simple measures and taking examples from other models of the world and implementing it to our model of election to remove the discrepancies and realize the democracy in its true spirit by guaranteeing and upholding right of every citizen.
There are numerous obstacles to exercising one’s right to vote. The Constitution of India, 1950, lays down who all can vote for the Lok Sabha elections and elections to the state Assemblies. Everyone who is 18 years of age or above can exercise their right to vote with few exceptions on the grounds such as commission of any crime, unsoundness of mind, non-residence or corrupt or illegal activities, etc.