Election Commission to approach government for more power
The Election Commission of India (ECI), the poll watchdog, is making a renewed effort to get the law ministry to approve measures to give it more teeth by empowering it to deregister political parties and bar contestants from running for election to two seats, people aware of the development said.
The ECI also wants the facility of casting votes through postal ballots to be extended to people engaged in essential services, which will be identified on the basis of the nature of the services they provide. According to one of the people cited above, these services could include healthcare and the aviation and railway sectors.
At present, only “service voters,” or those employed by the armed forces, state police forces and government employees posted abroad, as well as those on election duty and those in preventive detention are allowed to vote through postal ballots.
The ECI, in an affidavit to the Supreme Court last year, said it must be empowered to deregister a political party if it violates provisions of the Constitution. It said the law permits the ECI to register a party but does not confer any power on it to deregister it in case the party is declared unlawful or is found to have secured registration fraudulently.
In 2016, the commission, of its own accord, launched an initiative to identify registered, unrecognized political parties, which did not field any candidates during elections between 2005 and 2015. Giving it the power of deregistration would also discourage the formation of political parties that exist only on paper to avail the benefit of income tax exemptions.
These are among the recommendations made over the years to reinforce the powers of the ECI and some of them have been pending for over a decade. The Commission will raise the issue soon with the ministry of law, but a date for the discussion is yet to be fixed.
One suggestion that has been pending for over a decade is the suggestion to make voter registration more than just an annual exercise. According to an official who didn’t want to be named, the EC has proposed that the process of allowing those who turn 18 to be included in the electoral rolls should be a quarterly exercise so that if there is a by-election, those who aren’t listed as voters on January 1 can also cast their votes.
Currently, as per section 14(b) of the Representation of the People Act, 1950, the qualifying date for eligibility for enrolment in the electoral roll of a particular year is January 1 of that year; those who turn 18, the age at which one becomes eligible to vote, after January 1 are added only when the rolls are revised the next year.
If any election takes place in between, these voters cannot cast their vote.
“Since the commission wants no voter to be left behind, this amendment is required. Earlier, the commission had proposed the revisions to be on 1st of January, April, July and October; subsequently, the law ministry suggested two qualifying dates — January and July 1, but it is yet to be implemented,” the official cited above said.
Another recommendation that was made in 2004 said candidates should not be allowed to contest more than one seat at a time.
The election watchdog had also suggested that if this is not accepted, then there should be an express provision in the law under which any candidate who wins two seats, resulting in a by-poll from one of the two constituencies, will have to deposit a fixed amount to meet the expenditure for holding the by-election.
Another proposal made in 2004 that will be taken up again is extending constitutional protection to all ECI members that will ensure that the two election commissioners are granted the same protection as the chief election commissioner, who cannot be removed from office except in the same manner and on the same grounds as a judge of the Supreme Court.
While the powers of the chief election commissioner and the two election commissioner are on a par with each other, Clause (5) of Article 324 of the Constitution does not provide similar protection to the latter; it merely says that the election commissioners cannot be removed from office except on the recommendation of the chief election commissioner.
“The reason for giving protection to a chief election commissioner at par with an SC Judge was in order to ensure the independence of the Commission and insulating them from political pressure. Over the years the commission has sought similar rules for the election commissioners as it can strengthen the independence of the commission,” a former chief election commissioner said, requesting anonymity.