NRI voting should not be made too easy

How to raise political engagement without raising moral hazards

The connectedness of the Information Age made the issue of political rights of expatriate citizens more salient. The question of “should Non-Resident Indians get the right to vote?” was the topic of endless university canteen discussions, Usenet flame wars and online discussion forums before the Representation of People (Amendment) Bill, 2010 was passed to allow Non-Resident Indians to come back and vote in their constituencies. Many NRIs came back to vote in the May 2014 elections, and many others worked in the campaigns.

There are demands for more—that NRIs should be allowed an absentee ballot, to vote from their foreign domicile. This is sometimes coupled with the demand for internet-voting, a feature request that is common to both resident and non-resident Indians. While both these demands enjoy a certain degree of popularity, few have taken a hard look at the implications of doing so.

NRIs are citizens of India, many of who have retained their citizenship despite the lure and the attraction of a foreign passport. They have ideas, knowledge, skills, perspectives, capital and human resources that add to the quality of India’s politics, policy and industry. Leaving them out of the political process is unfair and wasteful. They must have a political voice.

The Election Commission has cited logistical challenges as the reason for not setting up polling booths in foreign countries. However, the real problem is more than just logistics. Absentee ballots have a moral hazard: the absentee voter is not around in the constituency to directly benefit from or suffer the consequences of his political decision. This insulation from the direct effects of one’s own voting decision weakens both the representativeness and accountability of the democratic process. The NRI has insurance too: if he does not like the outcomes in India, he can choose to continue foreign residency or take foreign citizenship. Of course, resident Indians can emigrate too, but it’s a lot more difficult.

Empirically, Diaspora politics tends to focus on the emotional and the ideological, and is often hardline and uncompromising. [Devesh Kapur’s latest paper on the political effects of international migration puts this in perspective]. The resident population has a greater need to balance the emotional with the quotidian and the ideological with the practical, so it makes a lot of pragmatic compromises.

The 2010 amendment to election rules balances, to a certain extent, the electoral inclusion of NRIs and managing the moral hazard arising from it. In economic terms, only those NRIs whose expected value of the benefit of voting exceeds the cost of a return trip to their polling booth will vote. The height of this hurdle protects the resident electorate from the political choices of their expatriate compatriots. It also means that richer NRIs are more capable of crossing this hurdle, and therefore, more likely to affect electoral outcomes in India. This is a price that must be paid to address the moral hazard of allowing NRIs to vote.

Allowing NRIs to vote in Indian embassies and consulates abroad lowers the hurdle. Internet voting reduces the hurdle almost to zero. The moral hazard problem gets worse with overseas polling stations and very acute with internet voting. Therefore, given the nature of dynamic compromises that characterise the politics of a highly diverse, plural India, it is prudent not to consciously stir up the pot by reducing the economic cost of voting.

That’s why internet voting, even for resident voters, is a bad idea. The inconvenience of standing in a queue for the time that it takes to cast a vote ensures that only those who value their vote more than that will turn up to do so. Yes, this system disproportionately favours those who put a low value on their time (in other words, those with lower incomes), but it is fair in that there is nothing to prevent anyone who values the subjective political outcome more than his subjective cost of voting to turn up and vote.

Another problem with absentee ballots is the question of constituency. Which constituency should an Indian citizen who’s lived in New York for 10 years belong to? She might have friends and relatives in one constituency—but putting her on the voters list of that constituency is against the principle of domicile-based voting. Many resident Indians live in one constituency but have family links in other constituencies, but they get on the electoral rolls of the constituency they are resident in. (Some resident voters do prefer to vote in their native constituencies, which the electoral system currently ignores.) Domicile-based electoral rolls are important for representation and accountability, and our New York-based voter might not know (or care) how bad public services are in her Indian native town are for her to hold the elected representative accountable.

Current electoral rules do not address the constituency question. One way would be to create a NRI constituency in the Rajya Sabha and the upper houses of state legislatures, and allow all NRIs to pick a representative who will voice their interests. We might need several NRI seats because different NRI populations have different needs. For a half-serious take on what might result, see why the sun does’t set on the Indian Republic.

It is important that all Indian citizens are included in India’s political system. After the 2010 amendment, a better balance has been struck. Further easing of the rules of voting is not advisable. Hurdles that impose economic costs on voters are not a bad thing—voting should not be made cheap.