Last Sunday, the Rajya Sabha witnessed multiple adjournments and total chaos as several opposition members protested furiously against the denial of their demand for a division of vote on the farm reform bills. The entire row was over the issue of Deputy Chairman Harivansh Singh opting for a voice voting instead of counting the votes for every member present.
If you have seen enough parliamentary sessions, you may already know what voice voting is - when the speaker asks for the "Ayes" and the "Noes" on any specific bill and the louder response (suggesting more people agreeing to it). A division of votes, on the other hand, is actual counting done either by going into the separate lobbies, or using an automatic vote counter.
Both these methods have been taken directly from British parliamentary practices, which where earlier used in India under British rule.
Voice voting - although contentious at times - in the Parliamentary rule book is a valid method of voting. It has one simple advantage - it is faster. The disadvantage - there is no accurate count of votes, as it is decided on which side is 'louder'.
Usually, voice voting is done when there is a clear agreement in the house on any specific bill. Former Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan once told The Hindu, "The voice vote is valid only when nobody questions it."
And he is right - while voice voting is part of the parliamentary procedures, if challenged, the speaker of the house must opt for a division of votes.
Sub-rule 4(c) of Rule 252 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States (Rajya Sabha) states:
"If the opinion so declared is again challenged, votes shall be taken by operating the automatic vote recorder or by the members going into the Lobbies."
Division Of Votes
As mentioned in the rule book, if any member of the house challenges the result of a voice vote, the speaker must count the votes by two means - through an automatic vote recorder, or by the members going into the Lobbies.
Automatic Vote Recording
Sub-rule 1 of Rule 253 of the Rajya Sabha rule book states:
"If the opinion declared under clause (b) of sub-rule (4) of rule 252 is challenged and the Chairman decides that the votes shall be taken by operating the automatic vote recorder, he shall direct that the votes be recorded and thereupon the automatic vote recorder shall be put into operation and the members shall cast their votes from the seats respectively allotted to them by pressing the buttons provided for the purpose."
It is an electronic method of voting, where every member gets a device which records their vote. The result of this form of voting is final, and cannot be further challenged.
If a member makes a mistake in voting, he or she may be able to rectify this by bringing it to the notice of the chairman before the final result is announced.
Voting In The Lobbies
There is yet another form of voting, where members go into the lobbies and vote on bill. Sub-rule 1 of Rule 254 of the rule book states:
"If the opinion declared under clause (b) of sub-rule (4) of rule 252 is challenged and the Chairman decides that the votes shall be recorded by the members going into the Lobbies, he shall direct the "Ayes" to go into the Right Lobby and the "Noes" into the Left Lobby. In the "Ayes" or "Noes" Lobby, as the case may be, each member shall call out his Division Number and the Division Clerk, while marking off his number on the Division List shall simultaneously call out the name of the member."
A more elaborate procedure, it requires members to go to the right or left lobby, according to their agreement or disagreement with the bill, respectively. Each member on either side will call out their division number, one by one, which shall then be recorded by the division clerk.
Similar to the automatic vote recording procedure, this form of voting is also final and cannot be challenged. Mistake in voting can also be rectified by bringing it to the notice of the chairman before the announcement of the result.
When To Use Which Method
It is clear from their very definitions that voice voting can only be done if it goes unchallenged - which happens in the case of a clear agreement in the house on a bill.
Last Sunday, when the two farm reform bills came up, there was no indication of such a clear agreement. Even the allies of the ruling party like the Shiromani Akali Dal had raised objections about several provisions of the bill.
Trinamool Congress' Derek O'Brien took up this matter with the deputy chairman and demanded a division of votes, but was denied, leading to the chaos that unfolded that day.
It is, however, not very often that MPs would ask for a division of vote to be recorded, which makes voice voting the usual method.
The first time votes were recorded by division in the parliament was on May 15, 1952 - the second day of sitting at the Lok Sabha. The lower house had to decide between Ganesh Mavalankar and S.S. More as the speaker of the house - Mavalankar won with 394 votes.
Since then, it has been used for contentious bills, only when a member of the house demanded it. In 2019, Lok Sabha member Asaduddin Owaisi asked for a division of votes on the Triple Talaq Bill, which was then granted. The bill later passed with 185 votes in favour, and 74 against.
Last August, the Manipur assembly saw a vote of confidence to assess whether the state government had the majority. The voting was shrouded in controversy as Congress members claimed that their demand for a division of votes was denied.
Similarly, in 2014, the Maharashtra assembly went through a vote of confidence to see if the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government had the numbers. The Shiv Sena and the Congress had asked for a division of votes, which was denied, and the assembly voted by voice instead.