Yes, says voters as ECB discontinues facilitation booth and restricts postal ballots

Rinzin Wangchuk 

Unlike in the past local government and parliamentary elections, only specified group of voters can cast their votes through postal ballot in the upcoming parliamentary elections, according to the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB).

ECB will not extend postal ballot (PB) services to Bhutanese working in State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), private companies and those living abroad this time.  

During the upcoming National Council (NC) elections, the ECB is providing PB to eligible postal voters covered under Section 331 of the Election Act of Bhutan 2008.

Section 331 states that voters may, notwithstanding anything contained in section 330, be cast by post or online by diplomats and persons working in embassies of Bhutan abroad; any person on special government duty who is for the first time being residing outside Bhutan for the performance of the duty; members of the armed forces; any person on election duty; civil servants; students and trainees.  

Spouse or dependent of a person can also avail PB service if the spouse or dependent is ordinarily residing with him/her; and any other group of voters as specified by the Election Commission in consultation with the government. 

Although the Election Act did not specify the eligibility of employees of Druk Holding and Investments (DHI) or SOEs, ECB officials said that the SOEs are not included under this Section. “However, ECB is going to extend PB service to working journalists who are assigned to cover the NC elections,” an ECB official said.

Regarding postal ballot services for those abroad, ECB clarified that as long as a Bhutanese citizen living abroad, including students falls under the categories covered by Section 331 of the Election Act, they are eligible to vote by post, using postal ballot. ECB officials also said that the eligibility of dependents shall also be as per the provisions enshrined under this Section. 

However, those who obtained permanent residence (PR) and green card are not eligible for such service. As per the citizenship laws of Bhutan, a Bhutanese citizen cannot hold dual citizenship.  PR is not considered a dual citizenship.


No Postal Ballot Facilitation Booth

The ECB will also discontinue the most convenient method of voting  – Postal Ballot Facilitation Booth (PBFB) in the fourth parliamentary elections. 

According to ECB’s media spokesperson, not having PBFB is not barring Bhutanese voters from being able to vote. “Citizens have the right to cast their votes at designated polling stations in their constituencies,” she said. “Voting at a polling station provides voters not only the opportunity to connect with one’s constituency, but also enables one to assess the ground realities and better understand the issues, concerns and challenges in the constituency prior to making an informed choice.”

During the 2018 parliamentary elections, according to election officials, the ECB facilitated the PBFB to reduce the incidence of postal ballot rejection that was noted during earlier elections, owing to mistakes made by the postal voters. 

Similarly, during the Third Thromde Elections and the Third Local Government (LG) elections in 2021, in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic, the ECB facilitated and urged all voters to vote through PBFB with the sole intention of mitigating the risk of Covid-19 transmissions. 

Similar to the polling station, PBFB was a polling booth for paper voters which do not require filling any forms unlike postal ballot. Such booths were set up in identified places around the country after considering the number of postal voters residing in populated areas.

“The PBFB is not a requirement set by law, but an arrangement to address, initially, the incidence of postal ballot rejection and more recently in the LG elections of 2021, to mitigate the risks of Covid-19 transmissions in the communities,” an election official said. 

Since the first parliamentary elections, the ECB has been continuously educating voters on their roles, responsibilities and rights to exercise their franchise. “With the experience acquired during the course of the democratic transition and following three parliamentary elections, the ECB is confident that Bhutanese electorate is today more aware of the electoral process and responsibilities,” ECB officials said.

In addition to the in-person civic and voter education conducted in gewogs and chiwogs, awareness on the electoral process have also been extensively carried out via audio-visual materials. Through these measures, many of the teething issues encountered during the first and second elections have now been effectively addressed. 

“It is now important for the ECB to implement the electoral process as per the provisions enshrined in the Election Act, unless otherwise necessitated by compelling emergency situations like the recent Covid-19 pandemic,” the official said. “With the maturity of our electoral process, it is important to ensure that interim arrangements such as the PBFB are only necessitated by compelling emergency situations such as the recent Covid-19 pandemic.”


Will it affect voter turnout? 

With the limitation on postal ballots and discontinuing the PBFB, some observers opined that the voter turnout will be affected. According to a former journalist, people living in countries like Australia will be deprived of their voting rights since only registered students are eligible. “The postal ballot registration form for the people living overseas does not cover dependents,” she said.

A former teacher who works in Perth said that such facilities should be made available to all the Bhutanese citizens. A former politician was more vocal. He said Bhutanese living abroad are deprived of their fundamental rights. “This move is unhealthy and could discourage Bhutanese living or working abroad,” he said. “Many Bhutanese are living or working abroad not out of choice. They are contributing to the country when it is not being able to provide jobs. Such moves could make Bhutanese abroad think they are being treated unfairly.”

Others say that there are more Bhutanese in one state, for instance in Australia than in many dzongkhags. “We are interested in the affairs of our country and want to be a part of it. It is unfair to deprive us of voting rights, a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution,” he said. “Perth, Western Australia is bigger than Trashigang in terms of eligible voters.”

Civil servants and corporate employees also shared their concerns about the discontinuation of facilitation booth. “This will discourage people from voting since travelling to their respective constituencies will be expensive,” a corporate employee said.

From the point of view of the larger national interest, according to ECB, it is imperative for citizens to understand that the act of voting is a sacred duty that one must exercise to elect the best candidates to serve the nation for the next five years. 

During the NC elections conducted on April 20, 2018, a total of 169,623 cast their votes in person on the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) and 64,912 voted through PB to elect 20 members among 127 contestants.  A total of 42,441 cast their votes in nine mobile facilitation booths and 69 facilitation booths in the 20 dzongkhags while 22,471 voted through conventional postal ballot.

In the LG elections in 2021, there were 463,033 registered eligible voters in the country. A total of 316,798 voter turnout, 190,494 cast their votes on EVM while 126,304 voted through PB and facilitation booths.