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A woman casts her ballot for the 2020 US Elections (Photo: AFP)
A woman casts her ballot for the 2020 US Elections (Photo: AFP)

The American voting system is different but not worse

The US has a slower counting process but is more flexible, allowing early voting and postal ballots

Time passed very slowly from the evening of 3 November to midday on 7 November. As poll workers across different American states counted votes, the world grew impatient. Younger Indians used to electronic voting were aghast: How could such a rich and developed country struggle so much at a task that India completes at four times the scale in a matter of hours? The answer, as always, is in the details of differences in the history of electoral processes.

The scale of Indian elections is mind boggling. For the 2019 general elections, the Election Commission of India (ECI) had to reach 879 million eligible voters. This was done in seven phases over 38 days. The rules require a polling booth within 2km of every single registered voter, which meant setting up 1.035 million booths with 3.96 million electronic voting machines (EVMs), that were counted in mere hours at the end. That this happens smoothly, with the electorate and political class investing full faith in the voting process, in a country with otherwise poor state capacity, is no small feat. Indian elections deserve the highest praise.

The American system is not just different from India’s, but every US state differs in the way it conducts elections and counts votes. The 2020 presidential election saw 224 million eligible American voters spread over a much larger land mass than India, making it harder to make polling booths equally accessible, without centralized rules like maximum 2km distance. Unlike voter ID cards issued by the ECI, American voters are registered by different state rules. Many states have problematic histories of voter suppression by race, gender and income, or of disenfranchising those with criminal records. Unlike India, the US has no central or uniform system, and not every state ensures that everyone can exercise his or her franchise equally. It sometimes varies by county.

At the same time, the American system enfranchised people differently than India, allowing early voting and mail-in-ballots. Ballots can be requested in advance, and either sent through the US postal service, or dropped off at designated polling stations. In 2020, given the pandemic, the ability to vote early or by mail was crucial, especially for the elderly, sick, or those who could not afford to take leave. Mail-in-voting also means that different types of ballots need to be counted, and signatures verified to prevent fraud. Finally, different states have different rules on when the counting of mailed ballots can commence, making the wait very long.

Indians, except for a limited group like members of the armed forces or foreign services, do not have the option of early voting or postal ballots. Thus, India automatically disenfranchises millions of internal migrants, who cannot afford to go back to their permanent residence-assigned polling booths. As India conducts elections over phases, there would be potential for fraudulent double voting if voters were allowed to vote in a place different from their residence or if allowed to vote early. India needs to either conduct single-day elections or get more sophisticated systems to prevent fraud. Postal ballots also take away the benefit of secrecy, which may work in a high-trust and high-state-capacity nation like the US, but might break down in India.

In 2019, the ECI used 11 million officials, mostly government employees and security forces, mandated to follow uniform rules, for a smooth process. America has a remarkably small number of paid poll workers, and a large number of volunteers ensure that polling happens safely and efficiently. These institutional differences between the Indian and US election systems have historical origins.

India is unique in having mandated universal adult franchise at the birth of the Republic. The US achieved this more than 150 years after its constitution was ratified. In India’s 1946 provincial elections before Independence, barely 20% of Indians were eligible to vote. But the framers of India’s Constitution discarded property, economic, gender and literacy criteria prevalent across the world. Over 500 princely states had different methods of governing, and to ensure equal and universal franchise, centralized rules for elections had to be created even before Indian federalism was fully formulated by the Constituent Assembly. In America, the states that formed the Union came with their own democratic rules and customs, which they preserved by severely limiting the power and scope of the federal government. America’s founders ratified a constitution that gave its states the power to set voting rules.

In 1950, 85% Indians were illiterate, but had the right to vote without the ability to exercise it. This was solved by having a simple ballot sheet with symbols for easy identification, non-concurrent elections, and a single question for a voting decision. US elections are multi-issue, with voters choosing candidates not just for the presidential race but also for the House, Senate and local elections taking place that year. Sometimes, ballots also feature referenda on issues like decriminalizing drugs, redistricting the state, new local taxes, etc. In every American state, the ballot runs into many pages.

Without taking away from the colossal accomplishment of the ECI, Indian elections are simpler, more centralized and more uniform, but with fewer dimensions of citizen engagement than US elections. As Indian democracy, state capacity and social trust mature, India may have the best of all worlds one day—complexity made possible by a highly efficient ECI.

Shruti Rajagopalan is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, US

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