Even as election officials start opening postal ballots (Envelope A), they are seeing a huge number of rejected or disqualified postal ballots. We have not even opened all the ballots, yet the number of invalid votes is astonishing.

 In the two constituencies of the capital city alone, 67 votes were rejected or disqualified because they had not fulfilled the requirement. The requirements are basic like the citizenship identity card number, a witness and a few other basic things. If those availing postal ballots cannot fill a ballot correctly, it is not worth the expense. 

It is estimated that one postal ballot within the country cost at least Nu 300. If we multiply that by the 125,949  people who qualified to vote by post, it is roughly Nu 37.7 million. This is worth building a school or a bridge if not enough to supply a power tiller each to the 205 gewogs.

The postal ballot is a facility granted to voters who cannot travel to the polling station on the poll day because of the nature of their work. It is also extended to civil servants and people providing critical services.  Basic services will be impacted if people leave to vote.

Given our topography, it takes at least four days to travel to say Lhuentse or Trashigang, vote and report back to work. It is also expensive even if political parties are providing free transport, shelter and meals. Voting, even if a fundamental duty, is an expensive affair. Many want to take part, but cannot afford it.

That is why the Election Commission of Bhutan is overwhelmed with requests for postal ballots. Every organisation or company has valid reasons why their employees should be eligible for postal ballot. Beyond the civil servants and armed forces, the hotelier, the water manufacturer, the news reporter, the mechanic or the tourist guide, are convinced their work is important during the election and thus make them eligible for the postal ballot facility. 

The postal ballot issue has created problems between employees and management, with some accusing management of failures of not being able to convince the ECB.  While the ECB has the right to decide who gets it or not, many are complaining that the facility is granted to who knows whom or who can argue or convince ECB officials. It may not be the case, but with details of who got the facility, there are many unhappy voters.

Above all, the postal ballot has been at the centre of controversy in every election thus far. Who gets it or not is not as serious as the accusation circulating on social media and by word of mouth. That postal ballot can be manipulated or influenced is not a rumour even if the accusations are not supported by “evidence”.

The armed forces, unfortunately, are dragged into this controversy every five years. Voters, political parties and their supporters are maligning institutions that are considered apolitical and sacred.  The suspicion of electoral fraud in our case cannot be separated from the postal ballot to the extent that many are said to be forced to vote for a party. Given the hierarchy system and the repercussions of reporting fraud, not many will report to authorities. Those on social media, the only safe platform, are ruled as baseless for want of evidence.

Nowhere is integrity more important in a democracy than in the electoral process. If the postal ballot system is doing more harm than good, if it is vulnerable to tampering, perhaps we should relook into the facility. Bhutan is generous in availing the facility. In neighbouring India, millions of students studying abroad non-resident Indians are denied the facility. It is strictly for a few who are posted abroad on government duties.

We should either extend the facility to all, replace it with the facilitation booth or strictly extend it to Bhutanese on government duties aboard. The rest should go and vote. Nobody will complain and rejection or tampering will be minimised.