What India Can Teach US in Holding Polls: A Lesson from Largest Democracy to the Oldest

The US midterm poll results are slowly becoming clear. It seems that the Democrats will retain control of the Senate while Republicans seem to be moving towards a slim majority in the House of Representatives.

Yet, the question is why the US midterm polls are still up in the air. Voting took place across the country on 8 November. The unexplained delays have been once again fuelling conspiracy theories and speculations, just like Donald Trump’s false claims of the 2020 presidential polls being rigged against him. But why does the US take so long to count ballots and decide elections? And what can it learn from India?

No Election Commission and heavy decentralisation

In the United States, there is no Election Commission for organising and conducting polls. The states are themselves in-charge of the poll process, giving wide powers to Governor’s and Secretaries of State.

Moreover, there is no central authority to certify elections either. The media calls the elections and there can always be a sense of bias in election coverage given the sharp divide on ideological lines in the American media.

Now, there are a total of 50 states in the US and every state has its own election rules. Some states use electronic voting machines, others use ballot papers. Similarly, some states allow voting by mail while others insist on voting in person. And finally, there is an advance voting in some states while others allow voting only on the election day.

In states, where voting by mail is allowed, there can be inexplicable delays. The ballots can take several days to arrive after the election is conducted and the counting keeps getting delayed. States like Ohio and Alaska count ballots that arrive even 10 days later. So, election results can end up facing unreasonable delays.

While some states count votes within hours, others end up taking several days. Republican US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, for example, tweeted, “If #Florida can count 7.5 million ballots in 5 hours how can it take days for some states to count less than 2 million?”

Issues of political bias

Free and fair elections are a basic condition for the effective functioning of any electrical democracy. Yet, the heavy decentralisation of elections and total discretion with the states often give rise to controversies.

Take the George W Bush-Al Gore presidential face off in 2000, for instance. The country has to keep waiting for the final verdict for 36 days due to delayed results from Florida. A slim margin in the votes for the two candidates had led to a hand recount. Ultimately, the fierce battle went to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in Bush’s favour.

Yet, there has been an even bigger case of alleged political bias. In the state of Georgia, Republicans have been in control since 2005. During the 2018 Governor polls, there were allegations by the media that the Republican party nominee Brian Kemp manipulated things to keep thousands of Democratic supporters from voting. Interestingly, Kemp was running for the post of Governor while functioning as the Secretary of State and enjoying vast powers in conducting elections.

Whether or not there was any substance in the allegations against Kemp is a different matter, but the fact remains that involvement of sitting political leaders in conducting elections and unnecessary delays in declaration of results can lead to serious allegations. Ultimately, voter confidence itself gets eroded in the electoral system.

A lesson from India

Election process in the world’s oldest democracy seems chaotic at the very least. On the other hand, India, a relatively newer democracy, has had a glorious history of conducting 17 parliamentary polls and several provincial elections.

While the US has to mostly conduct elections in organised, urban settings, elections in India tend to be a massive logistical exercise. The electoral machinery has to reach out to remote villages and far-flung border areas, often located in a geographically harsh landscape. Yet, the electoral machinery ensures enough efficiency to give every voter a reasonable opportunity of casting his or her vote.

On top of it, several bypolls are conducted, following deaths or resignations of sitting lawmakers. Yet, there have seldom been any inexplicable delays, contentious recounts or any serious allegations about the voting process.

The Election Commission of India functions as an independent and impartial body, and no autonomy is given to the political executive in conducting polls. The Election Commission announces the election schedule well in advance. Voting takes place as per the mandated schedule and counting too is scheduled beforehand. Again, the counting doesn’t go on for several days and is concluded on the designated day itself.

So, if US midterm polls are still up in the air, whereas India decides its polls on a pre-designated day, it is the lack of a formal structure in the US that is to blame. On top of it, the American system of letting sitting Governors and Secretaries of State decide the fate of elections makes little sense. The political executive could naturally try to favour nominees belonging to the same party instead of acting neutral.

If the US has to win back voter confidence and build a standardised poll process in the country, it must start by looking at the India model and roll out institutional reforms on similar lines.

Akshay Narang is a columnist who writes on national and international affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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