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?
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.
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.
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.
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?