Many voters grumble that none of the candidates in their constituency deserve their vote and this cynicism often makes them stay home on poll day. But those who believe in participating in the electoral process but are not inclined to pick one from the lot in fray do have an alternative.

Rule 49 (O) of the Representation of People Act (1961) allows a voter to go to a polling booth and fill in a form stating that he/she has “decided not to vote” with a signature or thumb impression.

Though this provision has been in existence for over five decades, it has remained largely unknown and there has been some awareness on this only in the last two elections. The official Election Commission website notes that three people exercised this option in the 2008 Assembly elections in Karnataka.

On March 22 this year, Election Commission of India sent a circular to the Chief Electoral Officer of Karnataka stating that this provision should be brought to the attention of all election officers in the State during their training sessions.

“This time we have specifically told all officers that any voter wanting to exercise this option should be facilitated,” said Anil Kumar Jha, Chief Electoral Officer of Karnataka. “It will be entered in the register of voters with a remark by the officer that the person ‘opted not to vote’. The number of such votes will also be tallied separately.”

These specific instructions come in the wake of problems faced by some voters last time while exercising 49-O. V.S. Sreedhara, academic and activist, says that he had to tell the polling officer in 2008 about this option and get him to consult the handbook.

Prof. Sreedhara believes that it is a “good clause, but ineffective” in the present context though it can be used as a mark of protest. “Hypothetically speaking, what will happen if a large number of voters exercise this option? That remains a moot question.”

In 2001, one of the electoral reforms proposed was introduction of a button for “negative vote” in the electronic voting machine and amendment of Conduct of Election Rules. However, this has not happened so far in India. Neighbouring Bangladesh introduced “None of the Above” (NOTA) option in 2008 and Pakistan in 2013, and this has been an option in countries like Greece.

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