What India Can Teach the US About Free and Fair Elections

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends most of her time in India and other parts of Asia researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as writes occasional travel pieces for The National (http://www.thenational.ae).

The United States Supreme Court on Wednesday deadlocked on whether to review a challenge to North Carolina’s electoral law, thus leaving standing a decision by a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. That court had invalidated parts of a North Carolina election law enacted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 2013 Shelby County v Holder decision striking down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. North Carolina was one of several states to amend its electoral law after that decision in what the appellate court described as an attempt to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The US system is clearly broken, relying as it does on venerable traditions of suppressing voter turnout and manipulating or corrupting counting and final results. This post is not an effort to describe this national disgrace, the details of which many readers are no doubt aware.

This post is instead about a completely different national system, in which electoral officials succeed in collecting and counting far more of the votes of the eligible electorate– whether measured by absolute numbers or in percentage terms– than occurs in the United States. Now I well understand that the corrupt aspects of the US electoral system are a feature, not a bug. But if this is ever to change, it’s useful for people to know that no deity handed down the US voting system on any tablets to be preserved for all eternity.

And if the US system is to change for the better, it might be useful for there to be more widespread awareness  of  basic characteristics of another national system that recognizes each citizen’s right to vote and systematically tries to implement that ideal. I’m not, by the way,  talking about a European country here, but about India, the world’s largest democracy– and one that can claim, with some justice, to be a far more inclusive democracy than is the US.

India’s electoral system is designed to get out the vote and make sure all votes are properly counted.   Elections are fiercely contested, but no party attempts systematically to intimidate or disenfranchise any category of voters (although I do not deny that intimidation does occur, but who is targeted and why tends to change across election cycles). The most recent national election– roughly equivalent to the US presidential election–  occurred in 2014 , when Narendra Modi was chosen as prime minister of India. More than 66% of India’s 815 million eligible voters cast votes, the highest level of voter turnout ever for an Indian national election. The Indian rate was more than 15% higher than that of the 2012 US presidential election, when the rate was just over 57%.

Many of India’s current electoral practices were formerly used in the US, and when they were, turnout in US elections was also higher than it is today. In the US, turnout skews toward the affluent, yet in India, turnout rates for the poor are higher than those for the rich.

Voting in the 2014 election was conducted during April and May– some of the hottest months in much of the country, when temperatures often reach exceed the high 90s. Voters also face other significant obstacles — weather, political insurgency, transportation, and sometimes, outright violence — in getting to the polls. So, given these constraints, how is it done?

Mobilizing Resources

Voting occurred in the 2014 election on nine separate dates, staggered by region, so that electoral, paramilitary, and police officials could be effectively deployed throughout the country. India uses simple, robust electronic voting machines (more on these below), and has about one and one-half million of these machines. Per capita, India has fewer than one-half the police officers that the US does, and most of these cops are armed only with lathis (long narrow sticks, a cross between a cane and a US beat cop’s nightstick), so the system must be efficiently organized to be effective.  Other priorities get pushed aside to make sure sufficient police are available to administer the election.  In 2014, all matches for the first half of the popular Indian Premier League cricket season, which typically runs from April through the beginning of June, were shifted to Dubai, to free up Indian police for electoral duties.  During the previous 2009 national election, these matches were played in South Africa.

The sheer size of India’s voting mobilization is impressive. Walking through the main administrative center for voting in Howrah, a Kolkata suburb, before one election day, I watched as thousands of election workers prepared to administer the elections.  Rows and rows of busses and chrome yellow Ambassador taxis assembled to transport election officials and police to voting stations. The Election Commission requisitions vehicles, and pays for three days of expenses— for vehicle rental, drivers, and fuel— to move election workers around as necessary.

The diversion of all these vehicles can make getting around a bit difficult for everyone else, as I learned when I arrived in Delhi by train the morning before its April 2014 voting day.  Few taxis were available at the train station, with most otherwise redirected to election duty.  Election volunteers are given their own lathis and sometimes help in directing traffic at intersections, filling in for the missing traffic cops who’ve been diverted to election duties.

Voting is not compulsory in India (as it is in Australia, and where a nominal fine may be levied for non-compliance). But the Election Commission of India strives to make it easy for people to vote. Indeed, a mainstay of Indian media electoral coverage has long been to show the process of setting up a  voting station, complete with the mandatory three electoral officials, solely to record the vote of a single person, a priest, who lives in a remote forest.

Voting day is a holiday.  People who work during the week in the city but officially live in villages are given extra time off to return to their homes to cast their votes.  Except for luxury hotels– which cater to foreigners and the local rich– sale of all alcohol is banned, either in restaurants or liquor stores, for the two days before the election (but this does not mean that considerable alcohol is not consumed, more on this below). India is not alone in scheduling its elections so as to make it easy for working people to vote. France, for example, typically votes on a Sunday– and Australia– on a Saturday.

How does India deal with issues of fraud and manipulation? It applies several clear principles to minimize such problems.

Eliminating Duplicate Votes

Vote early, vote often, or so the saying goes. India prevents this problem by using a simple system designed by then-Chief Election Commissioner Sukumar Sen for its first post-independence national election in 1952. Each voter rolls his or her index finger in purple ink after casting a vote. Once that finger is inked, no additional vote can be cast. Simple, effective, cheap? Yes on all three counts. And this system ain’t broke, so it’s still employed.

Not Disenfranchising Felons

A tremendous amount of effort is devoted in the United States to make sure felons cannot vote. The need to prevent felons from voting is used as the nominal excuse for challenging completely legitimate voters. How does India deal with this problem? Well, this is not seen to be a problem. A criminal conviction doesn’t void one’s subsequent right to exercise the franchise. Once you’ve done your time you can participate in Indian elections again.

Proving Identity

The Indian system makes it straightforward to prove identity and accepts several forms of valid identification for this purpose. Each voter’s name is indicated on the official electoral  roll. In case of a mistake in the roll, election workers can verify a voter’s identity using one of several other forms of acceptable documentation, such as a passport, ration card, driving license, or employment ID card.

Representatives from political parties are present at polling stations, but other than failure to prove identity, there’s little legal basis for party hacks to challenge someone’s presumptive right to vote. In the event of an unresolved dispute, the vote can still be cast, and will be counted if the challenge is resolved in the voter’s favor.

Voting Mechanics

Although the gold standard for elections is paper ballots, hand-counted in public, India uses an all-electronic voting system, The Election Commission employs simple, robust voting machines that rarely jam or break. The machines resemble a child’s plastic piano keyboard, with a line of buttons that identify names and party symbols.  One need not know how to read in order to be able to cast a vote, and even illiterate voters can quickly and accurately vote their choices.

The machines are robust. When there’s a problem— a voting machine breaks, for example— the Election Commission is immediately informed, and can call for a recount, or schedule a make-up vote. Now, I am not claiming that this system is perfect. The commission claims the machines are tamper-proof, but University of Michigan researchers demonstrated in 2010 how to hack the machines. At least one group, VeTA has formed to promote verifiability, transparency and accountability in Indian elections.

Counting Votes

Although the jury is out on whether machine manipulation may have distorted past electoral results, the machines make for easy vote compilation on counting day.  The Election Commission typically begins counting votes in the morning, and will finish and report results sometime in the afternoon. Multiple party officials are present when Election Commission officials count votes, making it extremely difficult to tamper with voting machines during the counting process. (The hacking that the University of Michigan team described occurred at the vote casting stage,  not as votes were being counted or tabulated.)


I should close by remarking that the Indian electoral system is not perfect, as I was reminded by Suvojit Bagchi, the Kolkata bureau chief for The Hindu, who has covered elections in India for the last two decades as well as elections in other countries.

But the trend has been positive, rather than negative. Formerly, getting to polling stations had been a problem in some rural areas, but following activist pressure, proactive commissioners on the Election Commission initiated reforms. Presently, manipulation comes in the form of the outright exchange of money for votes, but as Bagchi noted, there’s no guarantee a voter will vote as he’s been paid to do.

Alcohol also plays a huge role in Indian elections, and some who wish to depress turnout do so by getting targeted voters drunk so they are in no condition to find their way to the polls. Violence, both threats and actual, can be a problem. And politicians can sway the behavior of police, although the Election Commission is considered to be strict and honest in its administration of election law. “If people are overwhelmingly against a government, or a political party, these manipulations don’t work,” says Bagchi.

Can we say the same about the electoral shenanigans that occur in the United States?

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  1. Thor's Hammer

    What Venezuela can teach the US about conducting fair elections:

    “Jimmy Carter says the electoral process in Venezuela is the best in the world.:”

    And read the Carter Center’s 2014 summary report about subsequent events and flaws in the process in Venezuela: https://www.cartercenter.org/news/pr/venezuela-052214.html

    If a deeply divided country in the midst of economic turmoil can conduct elections with this degree of efficiency and fairness, why must Americans put up with the sham circuses we call elections?

    1. Bev

      Canada should be your model.
      Voting machines are anti-evidence. Jimmy Carter has said that American elections can not be monitored as there is not enough real evidence which is removed or hidden by right wing owned voting machines selecting the right most candidates in both parties.

      Paper ballots hand counted are your provable democracy. But, for chain of custody issues, voting needs to occur on election day, counted in precinct and publicly posted to compare with state results.

      Hillary Clinton is a fan of vote-by-mail/early voting which has a paper ballot, but is rife with chain of custody issues able to be manipulated by any number of people with plenty of time to do so.

      Hand counted paper ballots are also counted immediately after an election and results are knowable the same night. It is the cheapest, fastest, most accurate evidence which we should adopt now.

      Get Rid of All Voting Machines:
      Fraction Magic – Part 6: Execution Capacity
      By Bev Harris June 14, 2016
      6 – Middlemen, Inside Access and Manipulation –

      I eagerly await Bev’s upcoming chapters:

      Part 7: Whodunnit – coming –

      Part 8: Solutions and Mitigations – coming –


      Election Justice USA is declaring an #ElectionAction on 9/27/16 calling for an end to #ElectionFraud

      lulu Fries’dat @luluFriesdat Aug 31
      On right now with @AlisonRoseLevy – just dicussed fractionalized voting – and announced the #ElectionAction on 9//27 to support #HCPB


        1. Bev

          I e-mailed Cliff Arnebeck to see if he would want to answer your question directly to you, Lambert, on this well-read economic/political website, Naked Capitalism.

  2. Fred

    “Proving Identity” Yeah the voter i.d. requirement is going to go over well in the US. I’m surprised no one recommended that here before.

  3. grayslady

    other forms of acceptable documentation, such as a passport, ration card, driving license, or employment ID card.

    That would eliminate just about everyone in the ghetto neighborhoods of all major U.S. cities. Even I can’t afford to renew my expired passport anymore at $110. How do you obtain an “employment” card when you clean someone’s house or do odd jobs just to cobble together a living? What if you’re retired? Just to obtain a photo i.d. in Illinois (non-driver), you need five pieces of information, several of which cost additional money to obtain if you don’t have a copy. Then there’s the cost of the photo i.d. itself–an extra $20.

    As for counting votes, a paper trail is the only viable method of assuring voter accuracy. Any machine is simply too easy to hack–and, in this country, it probably will be.

    Voter turnout? Provide voters with options for real representation, or issues that affect them directly, and turnout is likely to take care of itself.

      1. The Beeman

        No Fee Universal ID’s issued at either or both the state and federal level is the only rational answer. It is issued automatically at some convenient point in every citizen’s life and if/when you move jurisdictions, the ID is still valid.

        1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

          If India, a much poorer country than the US, can figure out ways for eligible voters to ID themselves before casting a vote, why can’t the US? (I of course know the answer but my larger point in posting this is to suggest the way it is isn’t how it has to be.)

    1. John Zelnicker

      @grayslady – I agree with all but the last of your points. Voter turnout is suppressed by, among other things, having the polls open mainly or only during regular working hours. This makes it particularly difficult for the many workers who need to work long hours or multiple jobs. Note that some countries hold elections on the weekend or make election day a holiday. And, for those who are able to make the time to get to the polls during the day, a lack of voting places and machines can create long lines and be very discouraging. I’d bet there are a substantial number of people who see the lines at a voting station and decide not to vote because they can’t wait that long.

      1. grayslady

        Thanks, John. All good points that I forgot in terms of the actual mechanics of being able to vote, as opposed to people’s interest in voting.

    2. Vedant Desai

      In India, even the most poor people will atleast have ration card, which is a system of distributing food at concessional rate to poor. Other groups of people will have some sort of I.D. proof ,mostly driving license. Lastly you can make an voter Id card itself if you dont have other id proof. Though I have to confess that getting everything else except passport is very cheap for even the poor but the process is cumbersome. Having a passport is largely a luxury only a few have. Frankly , we in india always thought that American processes are much better than ours and envied American citizens. But after reading your comment I am amused.

  4. RabidGandhi

    Just a shout out for mandatory voting. We have it down here and I cannot fathom why there is not more popular pressure to implement it elsewhere (in fact I was under the impression that it was mandatory in some Indian states, like Gujarat?).

    A perfect example of how non-mandatory elections is used by the PTB can be seen in the current US elections which are a contest not as to who has the best policies, but rather as to who can suppress GOTV the most. How different would the primaries have been if they were mandatory? How would the current horse race change?

    To answer, permit me an example: in 1999, Argentina went to the urns as a decade of neoliberalism had left poverty at an all time high of 53%. The traditional parties, the UCR and the PJ offered more of the same, with both planning to further austerity at the behest of the IMF. In the end, the UCR formed an alliance with other smaller parties and won, but the election was marked by a huge number of blank ballots and no-shows. A mere 9 million voters out of 25 million voted for the winner, Fernando de la Rúa, thus sending a clear sign that he may have won the Pepsi challenge, but people didn’t want a cola. Without a clear mandate, once the 2001 financial crisis reached its peak, it was easy for the population to make it clear to De la Rúa that he had to leave office, which he did, voluntarily on 20 December 2001.

    In the US on the other hand, a very small minority of people will elect HRC or Señor Trump this november– because of vote suppression, voting being a hardship to an already stressed working class, blocking of all popular candidates, etc. Even so, the news stations will all put up percentages of voters, but very little attention will be paid to the percentage of eligible voters that selected the winner. They will do this to continue the charade that US presidents are somehow chosen democratically. With mandatory voting, this charade would be unveiled for what it is. Meanwhile, in Argentina, the election is not won by whoever is best at GOTV (or at suppression); rather it’s more based on what type of campaign candidates run.

    One last note, Jerri-Lynn you mentioned alcohol being a problem. Here, voting is always on a Sunday and alcohol sales are prohibited until the polls close.

    1. Arizona Slim

      For some STRANGE reason, I’m reminded of Gil-Scot Heron’s song, “B Movie.” The one that starts with Herron snarling, “Mandate, my ass.”

      He was referring to the low voter turnout in the 1980 presidential election. The one that was supposed to be such a landslide for the Reagan Revolution.

    2. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Alcohol sales are also nominally prohibited in India before and during voting day, but the people who distribute it to try and sway the outcome just stockpile it ahead of time.

    3. EoinW

      How can a free society have mandatory voting? Eventually one ends up with rules for everything, including forcing people to vote. Where’s the free choice? Lack of voter turnout is not the reason western democracies are in decline, it is a result of that decline. The biggest problem being super states are naturally undemocratic. The larger the country, the less democratic it will be. This comes down to governments having too much power, thus minimizing the influence of the electorate. Mandatory voting is the perfect example of states abusing their power.

      1. Brad

        Agreed. Smacks too much of Obamacare: mandatory private health insurance for profit, “for all”. Screw you if you don’t like health coverage provision through for-profit insurance companies.

        Likewise, voting is not just a choice between different politics on offer. Behind that, voting is an implicit endorsement of the status quo of the political system generally. It is a plebiscite vote of confidence in the system. Those who think the entire political system must go, must have the option to withhold endorsement as an organized collective act. And that is what we need to start doing here in the U.S.: Boycott the Vote. In every election.

        1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

          In India, and also in Australia (where as I mentioned voting is compulsory), there is a none-of-the-above option. In the 2014 Indian election, the polity was thought to be disgusted w/ corruption, and some observers were surprised that turnout was up, b/c usually voter disgust correlates w/ reduced turnout. The answer given for the higher turnout was that people could vote NOTA. I remember reading this explanation before votes were counted, when it was just speculation, but I never did review the final results to figure out whether it was an accurate assessment or not, e.g., whether there was indeed a high number of votes cast for NOTA. (In India since voting takes place over several weeks, with different areas voting at different times, there’s lots of ongoing speculation as to how voters have voted before everyone has indeed voted and counting day rolls along. Thinking of it as one big multi-week giant exit poll.)

          So maybe one additional thing I should put on my wish list for voting reform in the US would be to add a NOTA option to all ballots. That combined with compulsory voting make it clear what voters really think about the choices on offer. Imagine if the 2016 ballot had such an option. What happen would happen if NOTA gets a plurality?

          I wonder what EoinW would think about this option?

  5. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thank you for this essay. Valuable insights for those of us who value a democratic republic. This post is not about Switzerland or a Scandinavian nation with top rankings from Transparency International, but India — a nation of comparable geographic size to the US — one that is more densely populated and more heterogenous in social and economic terms than the US, and a nation that lacks a lengthy history of strong democratic traditions.

    Reflecting on this post, I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s famous response to a question by an anxious citizen about our form of government as Franklin emerged from the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

  6. sokpaard

    Observers tend to rank the overall integrity of India’s elections slightly lower than those in the USA, but electoral politics in many other countries, from Burkina Faso to Benin to Bulgaria, while by no means squeaky clean, come off looking better than those in the USA. See Pippa Norris, Ferran Martínez i Coma, Alessandro Nai and Max Grömping. =The Year in Elections 2015= University of Sydney, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, 2016, https://www.dropbox.com/s/ziav8ce6c63lx0k/The%20Year%20in%20Elections%202015_pages.compressed.pdf?dl=0

  7. Neil Pyper

    Thanks for this really thoughtful piece. I have followed Latin American politics for years. I think that it is important to remember that so-called advanced democracies can learn important lessons from how politics – and elections – are conducted in more recent democracies and vice versa!

  8. rusti

    In the US, turnout skews toward the affluent, yet in India, turnout rates for the poor are higher than those for the rich.

    Why is this? Just to hazard an anecdotal guess, I have an Indian coworker (in Europe) who is incredibly engaged in Indian politics, but he does not vote because it would require him to make a several-hour journey to the consulate in the capital city here. If much of the wealthy diaspora faces the same, maybe that contributes to lower turnout for those wealth brackets.

    1. oh

      I think that the poorer people see the crooked politicians for what they are; the rich just pay the bribes.

  9. oh

    Jerri-Lynn, thanks for the post. I wonder if the election system is the way it is because both parties want it to be so?

  10. TG

    All very interesting, but I think, missing the main point.

    What India can teach us about “Democracy,” is that representational “Democracy” means nothing.

    In India today there are something like a half a billion people who are chronically malnourished. The standard of living is physically less than late Medieval England! And most of the rest of the Indian population is not much better off, although the handful of rich can be waited on like classical Chinese emperors. There is also virtually no chance of this changing in our lifetimes. I conclude that minor technical improvements to the process of voting has no relevance to anything that matters.

    So the bottom line: an accurate and fair voting for two representatives of the oligarchy can help keep the masses distracted, but it means nothing. That’s what we should learn from India. But then again, we should have already learned that from the last 20 years in the United States…

    If we are given a false choice, who cares if illegal immigrants get to vote or if minority voters are disenfranchised or the percentage of eligible voters falls to low levels? What difference would it make?

    Now if you really want to learn something about Democracy, you might consider the Swiss. They’ve been practicing direct democracy for some time, and I’d say they were doing rather well, at least for now. They’ve avoided getting entangled in other people’s wars, the place is peaceful and clean and boring. Now there’s a lesson for you.

    1. Vedant Desai

      Well , I believe that object of the article was more on “conducting election in democracy” and not the model of democracy itself which is a different subject. And being an Indian I feel compelled to inform that as much as corrupt our country is , it has still managed to remain a democracy with fair election, largely due to our election process and election Commission. Despite being rampant corruption in all the other areas of goverment, there has been practically no controversy regarding fairness of election itself which speaks for its effectiveness.

  11. Raj

    Glad to see NC is gradually increasing its coverage of India and its issues. May I suggest a really good website with long form articles on current issues – http://www.thewire.in . Would love to see more coverage on which and how economic theory is being used by the Indian government to get more insight into its thinking. The media here is not very critical when it comes to economic theory and its application.

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