3 min read.Updated: 09 Nov 2020, 01:31 PM ISTRukmini S
The US election count has run long primarily because of a large proportion of mail-in ballots. In the world’s largest democracy, by contrast, very few voters are able to vote from afar
If Bishnu Prakash was following the US elections, he might have pointed out the irony himself. But Prakash (28) was immersed in a video of Bihar’s Chief Minister declaring that this was his last election on his Micromax phone. “If I could have, I would have voted for him - he’s saying it is his last election!" the Madhubani native pointed out, 2,250 km away in Chennai.
The delay in declaring the US election verdict and the partisan bickering around it have led some in India to suggest that India’s election process is superior. This is a matter of opinion and debate. But it is worth noting that a large part of the delay in the latest US election is a result of the unprecedented numbers of absentee and mail-in ballots. When it comes to accommodating the votes of those who can’t make it to the booth on polling day, India has more to learn from the US than to teach.
Mail-in voting doubled in the US in the 2020 elections compared to the previous elections, in large part as a response to the covid-19 pandemic. But even without the pandemic effect, a sizeable share of American voters vote through postal ballots. In India, postal ballots are available primarily to those in the armed forces and those on election duty. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, just 2.3 million or 0.4% of the total valid votes cast came via postal ballots.
India has taken a few baby steps towards expanding postal voting. In October 2019, the Union government amended the rules around postal voting to extend the option to electors over the age of 80, railway staff, and mediapersons covering elections. The February 2020 Delhi assembly elections were the first to be conducted under the new rules. In the ongoing Bihar assembly elections, the Election Commission of India toyed with the idea of extending the option of postal voting to everyone over the age of 65 years. Ultimately, it restricted it to those over 80 years, and those either suspected or confirmed to be covid-positive. For such registered postal voters, the Booth Level Officer visits the home of the elector with a form and collects it within 5 days. The number of Bihari electors who took up this alternative was modest.
For the vast majority of citizens, there is no alternative to voting in person. Prakash works for a contractor who installs flooring in homes in Chennai. When post-covid travel restrictions were lifted in May, Prakash returned home and waited out the monsoon with his family. But money was tight, especially with the looming prospect of illnesses and hospitalisations. Prakash returned to Chennai in August and was lucky, he says, to find work again.
“In normal times, I would have tried to go home for the election and stay there for Chhatth Puja (Bihar’s most popular festival)," said Prakash. “But now I will not be able to afford a trip home until next Chhatth, I think."
Being out of town on the day of elections is the single biggest reason why those who do not vote miss out, shows data from the 2019 post-poll survey conducted by the Lokniti programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).
Moving house can pose a challenge when it comes to voting, even for long-term or more established migrants. A survey by the urban reform advocacy, Janaagraha, conducted just before Delhi’s assembly election in 2015 found that a fifth of Delhi’s voters surveyed had moved to a location different from where they had registered as voters.
For short-term migrants such as Prakash, traveling thousands of kilometres to simply register their votes is a costly affair.
Research by political scientists Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta in Uttar Pradesh’s Banda district found that turnout in polling stations with high migration (with 25% or more out migrants) was three percentage points lower than the district average.
Despite the scale of movement in India - the 2016-17 Economic Survey estimated that the total migrant workforce could have been over 100 million in 2016 - there has been little discussion yet about the expansion of postal or absentee voting. Former election commissioner SY Quraishi says that he supports the expansion of postal voting, particularly in the context of the pandemic.
“The Election Commission has experience of conducting postal voting and proxy voting with safeguards," said Quraishi. “They can consider expanding it."
“There has not yet been any real push from civil society groups for this reform," said Sanjay Kumar, co-director of Lokniti.
Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist.
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