When the discussion turns to the administration of an election and the different voting paradigms that are available, most people envision a traditional polling place where voters must arrive in person to cast a ballot. There are several different technologies that can come in to play here, from traditional paper ballots to direct-recording electronic voting machines to electronic ballot counting systems. However, it is just as important to consider what systems are in place for voters to cast their ballots remotely and from abroad.
This is precisely what is happening right now in India, the world's largest democracy by population, as the country's Supreme Court has officially ruled that the Central government must enable e-voting for Non Resident Indians (NRIs) in just a few weeks. The motivation is an obvious one: with a significant number of eligible voters living or working internationally, election officials are morally obligated to provide some means for NRIs to exercise their democratic right.
While some 11 million Non Resident Indians have been granted the right to vote as of 2010, the current system requires that they be physically present in their constituency on the actual voting day in order to cast a ballot. This can be incredibly cost-prohibitive for NRIs living and working abroad as it would not be financially viable to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on travel expenses simply to cast a single ballot.
The Election Commission's recommendation to validate and approve postal ballots has been accepted in letter and spirit, but a full e-voting based system would be far more effective and more efficient. However, that is not what is currently being implemented.
Instead, the system that will allow overseas Indians to cast their ballots from abroad is set up as thus: they will receive a blank postal ballot via e-mail from election officials. The NRIs must then download the paper, print out a physical copy, fill it out manually, and send it back through regular postal mail to the polling official in their constituency.
This is a positive first step, but it is hardly complete. First, it is incredibly challenging if not utterly impossible to positively verify the identity of the voter. Since the blank ballot is sent via e-mail, someone may be able to intercept or duplicate equivalent copies to fill out on their own. Second, because the delivery of the ballot is still through the post, it is vulnerable to all the pitfalls that accompany the regular postal system. The ballot can be lost, misplaced or delayed.
For elections in India to truly move forward in an age of increasing digitization, voting for NRIs should also be far more digital in nature. The ballot can be submitted via a secure web portal, for instance, as has been the case with the shining example in Estonia. And like Estonia, a reliable and secure system needs to be in place in order to adequately confirm the identity of voters. At minimum, these two criteria should be a part of larger plans for remote voting in Indian elections moving forward.
And to this end, the ruling by the Supreme Court in India to mandate e-voting for non-residents could help to catalyze similar movements in other countries around the world. By requiring the option for expatriates and remote workers to cast their votes from abroad, India may encourage other democracies to require the same. This is a significant step forward for modernizing democracy.