Ensure people on election duty get to cast vote: Bombay HC to poll panel

The Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court has asked the Election Commission of India to ensure that every citizen, including those on public duty during elections, is able to exercise his or her right to vote.

The bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice RV Ghuge said, “We encourage the Election Commission (EC) to ensure, at all times, that every citizen holding a public office, but who is required to perform a public duty at a polling station, is in a position to exercise his/her right to vote.”

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The bench was hearing public interest litigation (PIL) filed by twelve citizens, eleven of whom are holders of public offices, claiming that their services had been utilized in the past by the EC for conducting polls. The twelfth petitioner claimed to know with rules and regulations regarding elections and had assisted all other petitioners in collecting information so as to protect the rights of a ‘voter on election duty’, as defined in rule 17 of the Conduct of Election Rules.

The 11 petitioners claimed from their personal experience that although public officers deputed for election duty are responsible for free, fair, and smooth conduct of polls, at times, they stand deprived of their right to vote.

Although the advocate for the petitioners conceded that in the past couple of years several corrective steps had been taken by the Election Commission of India and the situation had vastly improved.

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He added that the Election Commission ought to be directed to ensure that those who opt for voting by applying in Form 12 receive the ballot papers well in time so as to exercise his/her voting right. This was specifically stated as the petitioners did not get postal ballots to cast their vote at many instances.

Advocate Alok Sharma, appearing for the EC, argued that proper measures have been taken to ameliorate the grievances of voters on election duty. They also added that EC does make provisions to provide adequate opportunity to the voters on election duty to exercise their rights of voting and the protection envisaged therein is sufficient to hold that there is no denial of any right.

The bench went through the provisions and said it was clear that an option was allowed to be exercised by a ‘voter on election duty’ to either vote through postal ballot or to vote by remaining present in person at an election.

For the former, an application of the nature prescribed in Form 12 has to be filled in whereas for the latter, an application has to be made in Form 12A. Those who opt for casting vote in person are required to be issued a certificate in Form 12B, an Election Duty Certificate (EDC). An ‘EDC’ mark has to be made in the copy of the electoral roll to indicate that an election duty certificate has been issued to the concerned voter and the EDC holder would not be allowed to vote at the polling station where he would otherwise have been entitled to vote.

The bench then added, “In view of such statutory provisions, we are of the considered opinion that the concern expressed by the petitioners in the public interest litigation would stand adequately addressed. It would be open to the first eleven petitioners, if they are once again deputed for election duty, to opt for voting either through postal ballot or by voting in person in the manner ordained by Sub-rule (2) of rule 20 of the 1961 Rules.

To sound a note of caution, we wish to observe that for those public officers, who opt for voting through postal ballot by sending an application in Form 12, the Election Commission of India must ensure that the address to which the postal ballot is to be dispatched is complete in the real sense of the term and nothing is left out so as to render the process infructuous.

The court added, “There must be a genuine attempt to rule out the element of human error on the part of the officers/ staff of the Election Commission. After all, the right to vote is a vital right of every citizen of the country and if those officers who assist the Election Commission in holding peaceful polls are themselves deprived, that would indeed not be a very acceptable situation.”

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