The poll position: India & the US

November 2, 2020 5:30 AM

The US is an older democracy than India, but there are many aspects of electioneering where India trumps the US

Some states allow change of preference for candidates indicated in the postal ballot, which seems a little odd.Some states allow change of preference for candidates indicated in the postal ballot, which seems a little odd.

By Nivedita Haran & VP Haran

Elections in India are a part of the governance system. The system has got fairly entrenched over the last 70 years. With the Constitution as its bedrock, the Representation of the People Act, 1950, with amendments over the years, has served us reasonably well. As infrastructure developed, the reach of public services has improved.

Growing literacy has generated awareness amongst the electorate. Elections now happen with a fair amount of precision. The 1990s were a turning point in our election history: the Election Commission of India asserted itself as a Constitutional authority that laid down strict guidelines for all stakeholders to follow. The electorate got empowered through a system for lodging grievances with time-bound redressal. Financial limits of electioneering budget became serious work. Most important, Election Observers came to be placed in every constituency as watchdogs to monitor the administration, procedures and finances connected to each election-related activity. The credit for making all sections of the population understand that elections were a serious business that could not simply pass off as a default activity has to go to TN Seshan, the then Chief Election Commissioner of India. The powers that the Observers wielded, and continue to wield, were enormous, with direct link and accountability to the EC.

This was also the time when EVMs were introduced, in a staggered manner until the general elections in 2004 when every polling booth in every polling station in every constituency was provided with EVMs and physical casting of vote through the ballot ceased completely.

For a country that won its hard-earned freedom with many sacrifices, the system adopted in the Indian democracy, of universal adult franchise with each person’s vote carrying equal weightage, had immense significance. In India, elections are a celebration: Right from the notification of the schedule to filing of nominations to campaigning, later casting of vote and finally the declaration of results, all happen with precision and transparency accompanied by public meetings, loudspeakers blaring party slogans and larger than life cut-outs and posters put up in every constituency.

Yet the system in India is still growing and needs improvement. Elections are noisy and the candidates sometimes have a suspect background. There are frequent reports of corrupt practices. Enormous amounts of funds are spent by political parties and candidates, hoodwinking the Election Observers’ audit. Parties promise the moon in their manifestos, but there is no system to ensure that they adhere to the programme outlined in the manifesto. This casts a doubt on whether the votes are being cast for the programme of the party as reflected in the manifesto or for other considerations. Elections are being held now in Bihar and, thanks to the EC, the administration and the people of Bihar, these are proceeding smoothly.

Contrast this with the Presidential election in the US. The oldest democracy has not got around to streamlining its electoral system. Unlike in India, there are no uniform rules for the conduct of polls. Each of the states has its own rules and further the rules seem to be flexible according to the whims of those in power in the states. For example, the dates for commencement of early voting are not uniform. Rules for counting of postal ballots are different; in some states, the postal votes have to reach before the close of polling on polling day. In some other states even votes reaching up to three days after the date of polling need to be counted and taken into account. The US Supreme Court has upheld the decision of the state of North Carolina to count absentee votes received up to 9 days after the close of poll. This implies uncertainty on when the final results would become available.

Some states allow change of preference for candidates indicated in the postal ballot, which seems a little odd. In Estonia, they have a similar rule. There votes are cast using the mobile phone and the system permits change of preference for candidates till the time of close of the poll.

The system of electing the president through electoral college and not by the count of valid votes polled in the elections results in odd situations, where the losing candidate may get more popular votes than the winning candidate. In 2016, the losing candidate Hillary Clinton polled 2.87 million votes or 2.1% of votes cast more than President Donald Trump. Similarly, in 2000, the losing candidate Al Gore polled 0.54 million votes (0.5%) more than the winning candidate, President George Bush. In a system of where the voters have to make a direct choice between the candidates of the Republican and the Democratic parties, it seems rather odd and unfair: How can a candidate polling lesser number of votes sail through!

Media reports seem to indicate the inadequate infrastructure in some states/counties. With early voting in progress, a voter complained that it took him 11 hours to cast his vote. There are serpentine queues in many polling booths for early voting. Another lamented that the place for depositing postal votes was changed arbitrarily and that he had to travel 45 miles to hand over his postal ballot. Compare this with the situation in India where every effort is made to ensure that there is a polling station within 5 km of every voter’s residence. In fact, in the last general elections, a polling booth was established for a single voter in a remote area.

Every system has its plus points and flaws. We can also learn from the US system; direct elections for the chief executive’s post, debate between the candidates and early voting especially for senior citizens with mobility issues. We may also consider separate polling booths for women voters. In order to improve the quality of governance, minimum educational qualification and work experience in the field for every candidate could also be mandated.

Compared to a country like the US where democracy arrived centuries earlier, the Indian democracy is still in a nascent stage. Yet we can take pride that our systems are pretty robust; they are voter-centred and focus on plugging any irregularities. For a population as humongous as ours, recording a voting percentage of 60-70 is indeed creditable for all stakeholders: the political parties, electorate and for the election administration. I recall an incident from the first elections in Kosovo after the UN peace-keeping mission moved in: a Roma (gypsy) voter petitioned that he was unable to reach the polling booth as he had no transport and was also blind. The UN arranged a transport for him with security. This surprised my military counterpart who hailed from the West and who thought all the effort unnecessary. Our justification was that it was our duty to provide every support to every voter to enable him/her to cast his/her ballot. Right to vote has become deeply entrenched in the mindset of Indian administrators.

Nivedita Haran is a former IAS officer, and VP Haran is a former Indian ambassador

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