According to the commission’s estimate, the costs involved would be prohibitive

Election: It will cost the government at least Nu 120.65M (million) to arrange residential voting for the next parliament election, estimates worked out by the Election Commission of Bhutan show.

Presenting the estimates at the dzongkhag tshogdu (DT) and gewog tshogdu (GT) conference yesterday, election commission officials said that, besides the huge budgetary implication, requirement of human resource was also an issue.

Lhuentse’s DT chairperson and Jarrey gup, Kinzang Minjur, had raised the issue as an agenda, saying that there was a need to arrange residential voting facility for the upcoming elections.

Chief election officer, Phub Dorji, explained that introducing such residential voting facility for National Council election alone would cost Nu 35.92M.

For the council election alone, it would require setting up 400 additional polling stations in each dzongkhag, 415 additional electronic voting machines (EVM), 2,490 polling officers, 122 assistant returning officers, 1,200 security personnel, and also generate a separate voter list for each dzongkhag.

For the National Assembly election, which is conducted in two rounds, the requirement differs.

It’s estimated to cost Nu 35.92M for the primary round and Nu 45.8M for the general election.  For both the rounds, it would require setting up 940 additional polling stations and 940 EVMs, 4,700 polling officers, 24 assistant returning officers, 2,820 security personnel and a voter’s list each for a polling station representing an NA demkhong (constituency).

The commission also needs to segregate three distinct voter lists into voters voting in the actual polling station, postal voters list and list of voters registered to vote in places of choice in the residential polling stations.

“It will be relatively simple in the primary round than for the general election to arrange residential voting,” Phub Dorji said.

Phub Dorji explained that it would be simpler to declare results for the primary round, since it was declared as an aggregate of all votes cast throughout the country, without determining which party won in which dzongkhag or demkhong.

He said, while there were advantages, such as maximum participation in the voting process, significant reduction in postal voting and private employees not having to avail leave to vote, residential voting would have significant impact on the declaration of results.

Another implication, according to the commission, was of the ‘electorate losing faith in the integrity of election results, since the outcome of a constituency could be determined by voters residing outside their demkhong’. 

Jarrey gup Kinzang Minjur said people in the dzongkhags were looking forward to a facility, where they need not travel to another dzongkhag to cast their vote.

“If it’s expensive to arrange residential voting, isn’t there possibilities of people voting at the already set up polling station from their place of residence,” he said.

Clarifying further, election commissioner Chogyal Dago Rigdzin, said, relaying results from one multiple polling station to the concerned returning officers of 47 constituencies would be a nightmare.

He said that there was risk of undermining public faith in votes received and counted in a distant polling station.

“As an election management body, we don’t take this issue lightly on a trial and error basis, as it has the potential of undoing whatever we’ve achieved thus far, in terms of public trust,” he said.

He explained that Bhutan’s electoral system provided for conducting elections based on a one-year minimum registry but not from a place of residency.

Given the unlimited promises of information technology, such as biometrics systems and mobile technology with reliable infrastructure, commensurate zeal and enhanced IT-literacy of the electorate, election officials said such challenges could be reduced substantially.

“ECB has been consistently asking voters to shift their civil registry to places where they reside so that they can vote conveniently at a place, where they have maximum stake,” Chogyal Dago Rigdzin said.

Gups also asked if postal ballots could be extended to corporate and private employees, instead of residential voting.

Election officials explained that a certain degree of literacy was required to fill identity declaration certificates and application forms related to postal ballots.  Keeping postal ballot system too simple, they said, would also be subjected to fraud or misuse.

“Extending postal ballot facilities further to private employees and spouses and dependents would compound the existing problems, than creating convenience to voters,” Chogyal Dago Rigdzin said.

Meanwhile the three-day DT and GT conference ended yesterday.  The conference was held in two groups.  The second group’s conference for the remaining eight dzongkhags begins tomorrow and ends on June 21.

By Nirmala Pokhrel