The Election Commission of Bhutan has endorsed the reform to enhance voter turn out

In what is considered to be one of the major reforms in Postal Ballot voting in the country, the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) has introduced a new postal voting system that will enable postal voters, their spouses and dependents to vote in person from their dzongkhag of residence.

About eight days prior to the poll day in the upcoming parliament elections, the ECB will set up several polling booths for postal voters in a dzongkhag. For instance Tsirang would have three polling booths in Tsirangtoed, Mendrelgang and Damphu.

Voters who have their census registered in another place but are working in Tsirang could come to the polling booth to caste their vote in person, provided they are registered postal voters. Postal voters would need to carry their Voter Photo Identity Cards. The presiding officer will validate in the electoral roll and ink them while the polling officer will provide a form containing details of the contesting candidates against which a vote could be cast (by stamping) inside a voting compartment. The voter will have to seal the envelope and drop it inside the ballot box.

At the delimitation public hearing yesterday, Tsirang’s electoral officer Kibu Zangpo said the polling booths would be open for at least three days, after which the ballots will be sent to respective dzongkhags.

“The postal ballot voting procedure is similar to Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) voting but instead of punching into the EVM, postal voters need to tick the candidate in a form provided by the presiding officer and drop it in the ballot box,” he said. “This removes the hassles of paper work and posting through a post office.”

He said this change would reduce the lengthy procedure involved in casting a traditional postal ballot voting. It is now a one-way process that involves registration and voting. This is expected to minimise proxy voting, errors and rejection of postal ballot.  Postal voters could now get their spouses and dependents registered in their residential dzongkhag and caste the vote in person.

Soon after the Local Government election last year, Kibu Zangpo proposed the reform at the ‘learning from experience’ meeting conducted for election officials. After his idea failed to impress many, Kibu Zangpo was asked to conduct a study, which was presented during the ECB annual conference.

A demonstration was done later in Paro where the commission officials accepted that it could work. Recently during a coordination workshop for the 2018 election, the reform was endorsed.

Kibu Zangpo explained that the commission has always been looking to enhance voter turnout. Realising that there was less voter turn out because of inaccessibility to voting facility, an idea for the reform was pursued. “While analysing the past postal votes cast, it was found that less than 30 percent of postal voters voted and most of the votes ended up being rejected,” he said.

For instance in 2013, there were over 80,000 registered postal voters but only about 30,000 opted to vote. It was found that the traditional postal ballot system has lengthy procedure of registration, application for postal ballot to returning officers of respective dzongkhags, filling up forms, which most voters filled erroneously and then posting it.

“With the maturity of democracy in the country, there was a need to improve some voting procedures,” Kibu Zangpo said. “Traditional postal ballot somehow compromised secret ballot.”

However, the traditional postal ballot will remain unchanged for voters in places such as Lunana, Laya, Merak, Sakteng, Lingshi and voters living overseas where polling booths cannot be set up. Traditional postal voting will now be availed by less than five percent of the voters.

Officiating secretary of the commission, Tashi Dorji said that the commission also has considered providing voting access for people with disabilities who may not be able to visit a polling station or polling booth. This facility would also extend to patients in hospitals and mobile polling booths will be taken wherever these voters are. The commission has already collected data on these voters.

Nirmala Pokhrel |Tsirang